Carolyn Kaster / AP

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer personally picked up the phone and connected outside officials with reporters to try to discredit a New York Times article about Trump campaign aides' contact with Russia, then remained on the line for the brief conversations, Axios has learned. Ten key points:

  1. Why it matters: The new details show how determined the West Wing was to rebut a front-page Times report on Feb. 15 that Trump campaign aides "had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election."
  2. Who was involved: The officials reached by Spicer were CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-N.C), according to a senior administration official. The reporters were from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, the official said. Spicer provided reporters' phone numbers to House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who offered to make the calls himself, according to the official: "He was in and out of an event."
  3. When did this happen? On Feb. 15, when the two-column lead of the Times print edition, which Trump reads carefully, declared: "Trump Aides Had Contact With Russian Intelligence: U.S. Officials Tell of a Flurry of Phone Calls Intercepted Before the Election." An FBI official had volunteered privately to the White House that the story was "B.S." (but used the full word). When the FBI didn't immediately agree to tell that to the press, the White House tried to find other officials who would convey that idea to inquiring reporters.
  4. What the White House was thinking: Spicer declined to comment. The official said Spicer didn't know at the time whether an investigation of Trumpworld contacts with Russia was underway, and was trying to make sure the connections were made before evening deadlines. "We'd been getting incoming all day," the official said. "Ironically, the White House was actually encouraging people with direct knowledge of the accuracy of the Times story to discuss it with other reporters."
  5. The backdrop: Top White House officials tell us they're authentically confident that the Russia smoke won't lead to fire, and are even happy to have their opponents distracted by the issue. "For over six months, we have heard about these alleged contacts with Russia," the official said. "And yet, … with all the leaks have have come out, there's no 'there' there."
  6. What was said on the calls: Pompeo and Burr told the journalists that the Times story wasn't true but provided no details, frustrating the competing reporters, according to the official: "Both of them said: All I can tell you is the story is not accurate."
  7. What we don't know: Our sources weren't sure exactly how many calls were made, or which official talked to which reporter.
  8. Why this is unusual: Intelligence officials from the Obama administration said it's rare for the CIA director to talk directly to a single journalist – that in the past, the director usually was held in reserve to talk to a publisher or executive editor in a case where a news organization was contemplating publishing something that could harm national security.
  9. What we knew before: The Washington Post reported the pushback operation on Friday night under the headline: "Trump administration sought to enlist intelligence officials, key lawmakers to counter Russia stories."
  10. The reaction: Some Democrats were already arguing that Russian involvement in the election should be investigated by a special prosecutor or outside, 9/11-style commission, rather than the congressional intelligence committees. George Little, a top CIA and Pentagon spokesman under President Obama, told us: "It's doubtful that Congress can conduct an objective and independent investigation into ties between this White House and the Russian government if it is collaborating so closely on media pushback with the White House press secretary."

Go deeper

7 hours ago - Podcasts

Facebook boycott organizers share details on their Zuckerberg meeting

Facebook is in the midst of the largest ad boycott in its history, with nearly 1,000 brands having stopped paid advertising in July because they feel Facebook hasn't done enough to remove hate speech from its namesake app and Instagram.

Axios Re:Cap spoke with the boycott's four main organizers, who met on Tuesday with CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other top Facebook executives, to learn why they organized the boycott, what they took from the meeting, and what comes next.

Boycott organizers slam Facebook following tense virtual meeting

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Civil rights leaders blasted Facebook's top executives shortly after speaking with them on Tuesday, saying that the tech giant's leaders "failed to meet the moment" and were "more interested in having a dialogue than producing outcomes."

Why it matters: The likely fallout from the meeting is that the growing boycott of Facebook's advertising platform, which has reached nearly 1000 companies in less than a month, will extend longer than previously anticipated, deepening Facebook's public relations nightmare.

Steve Scalise PAC invites donors to fundraiser at Disney World

Photo: Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise’s PAC is inviting lobbyists to attend a four-day “Summer Meeting” at Disney World's Polynesian Village in Florida, all but daring donors to swallow their concern about coronavirus and contribute $10,000 to his leadership PAC.

Why it matters: Scalise appears to be the first House lawmakers to host an in-person destination fundraiser since the severity of pandemic became clear. The invite for the “Summer Meeting” for the Scalise Leadership Fund, obtained by Axios, makes no mention of COVID-19.