White House chief of staff Reince Priebus asked a top FBI official to dispute media reports that President Trump's campaign advisers were in frequent touch with Russian intelligence agents during the election, a White House official told the Associated Press late Thursday.
The White House confirmed Thursday night that the conversation between Priebus and FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe occurred on Feb. 15, but said it was McCabe who initiated the contact to inform Priebus that a New York Times report was overstating the nature of their investigation, Politico reported.
"To be clear, it was the FBI that contacted the White House to rebut the New York Times' story," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday night. "We merely asked them to inform journalists of the same point that they were making to us."
Priebus' discussion with McCabe sparked outrage among Democrats, who said he was violating policies intended to limit communications between the law enforcement agency and the White House on pending investigations.
"The White House is simply not permitted to pressure the FBI to make public statements about a pending investigation of the president and his advisers," said Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Priebus alluded to his contacts with the FBI over the weekend, telling Fox News that "the top levels of the intelligence community" have assured him that the allegations of campaign contacts with Russia were "not only grossly overstated, but also wrong."
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Priebus' comments opened the door for FBI Director James Comey to discuss the bureau's investigation publicly.
"If the White House chief of staff can make public claims about the supposed conclusions of an FBI investigation, then Director Comey can come clean with the American people," Wyden said.
A 2009 memo from then-Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department is to advise the White House on pending criminal or civil investigations "only when it is important for the performance of the president's duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective."
When communication has to occur, the memo said, it should involve only the highest-level officials from the White House and the Justice Department.
The White House official would not comment when asked if the administration was concerned about the appropriateness of Priebus' communications with McCabe, the Associated Press reported. The official was not authorized to disclose the matter publicly and insisted on anonymity.
The FBI would not say whether it had contacted the White House about the veracity of the Times report.
Trump has been shadowed by questions about potential ties to Russia since winning the election. U.S. intelligence agencies have also concluded that Russia meddled in the campaign to help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
Last week, Trump fired national security adviser Michael Flynn because he misled Vice President Pence and other White House officials about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Flynn, who was interviewed by the FBI about his contacts, is said to have talked with the ambassador multiple times during the transition, including about U.S. sanctions policy.
Still, Trump and his advisers have denied contacts with Russian officials during the election. Last week, Trump said "nobody that I know of" spoke with Russian intelligence agents during the campaign.
The Associated Press contributed to this report