Senator Flake says Trump's 'spygate' is a 'diversion tactic'

WASHINGTON, May 27 (Reuters) - Republican U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, who has not ruled out running against Donald Trump for the White House, on Sunday criticized as a "diversion tactic" the president's unsubstantiated allegation last week of an FBI "spy" being planted in his election campaign.

Flake's comments, on NBC's "Meet the Press," put him again at the forefront of very few Republican lawmakers willing to openly challenge Trump over his attacks on law enforcement officials who are investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion by the Trump campaign.

The investigation was begun by the FBI in July 2016 but handed over by the Justice Department to Special Counsel Robert Mueller in May 2017 after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.

RELATED: Sen. Jeff Flake through the years

18 PHOTOS
Sen. Jeff Flake
See Gallery
Sen. Jeff Flake
Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) questions Supreme Court nominee judge Neil Gorsuch during his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) talks to reporters as he arrives for a Senate health care vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 27, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) laughs with fellow subcommittee member Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) (L) at the Senate Foreign Relations' Western Hemisphere Subcommittee hearing on President Barack Obama's changes to Cuba policy in Washington February 3, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 19: (AFP OUT) Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) (L) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) (R) attend a lunch with members of Congress hosted by US President Donald J. Trump (not pictured) in the State Dining Room of the White House on July 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Michael Reynolds - Pool/Getty Images)
MESA, AZ - APRIL 13: U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) speaks at a town hall event at the Mesa Convention Center on April 13, 2017 in Mesa, Arizona. It was the first such event this year for Flake, who is up for re-election in 2018, as Republican lawmakers across the country have been confronted with angry voters in similar settings. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 25: Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., right, and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., conduct a news conference in the Capitol to introduce an authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban on May 25, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
MESA, AZ - APRIL 13: U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) speaks at a town hall event as critics show their displeasure at the Mesa Convention Center on April 13, 2017 in Mesa, Arizona. It was the first such event this year for Flake, who is up for re-election in 2018, as Republican lawmakers across the country have been confronted with angry voters in similar settings. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 9: Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) speaks with reporters after a vote at the U.S. Capitol, May 9, 2016, in Washington, DC. Senate Democrats defeated a procedural vote on an energy bill, which increases funding for the Department of Energy and Army Corps of Engineers. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - APRIL 25 - Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., checks out Adaeze, a one and a half year old Cheetah, from the Leo Zoo, in Greenwich, Ct., along with Marcella Leone, from the Leo Zoo, middle, and Dr. Laurie Marker, Founder and Executive Director of Cheetah Conservation Fund, in Nambia, left, following a briefing on 'Combating Threats to the Cheetah, Africa's Most Endangered Big Cat, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, Monday, April 25, 2016. The briefing, led by House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Sen. Flake, comes as the Senate prepares to consider legislation on the 'destructive practice of wildlife poaching and trafficking.' Joining Adaeze on the table is Odie, a Australian Shepherd. (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) talks to reporters as he arrives for a Senate health care vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 27, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) departs after a briefing by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the ongoing fight against the Islamic State, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) announces he will not seek re-election as he speaks on the floor of the Senate in this still image taken from video on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Senate TV via
U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) faces reporters after announcing he will not run for reelection on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, speaks during an interview on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017. Flake announced he won't seek re-election and then delivered a blistering attack on�Donald Trump�on the Senate floor, the second GOP senator to publicly excoriate the president on the�day the party wanted to put a proposed tax overhaul at the forefront. Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Bloomberg via Getty Images
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 07: Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., left, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., make their way to a Hurricane Harvey aid related vote in the Capitol on September 7, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 24: Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and his wife Cheryl Flake leave the U.S. Capitol as they are trailed by reporters, October 24, 2017 in Washington, DC. Flake announced that he will not be seeking re-election and he will leave the Senate after his term ends in 14 months. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 24: Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., is seen in the Capitol on the day he announced he will not be running for re-election on October 24, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 18: Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., talk as Attorney General Jeff Sessions testifies during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Full committee hearing on 'Oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice' on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

Flake said Trump's unfounded allegations about FBI spying on his campaign, which the president has called "Spygate," came amid escalating, behind-the-scenes concern in the U.S. Senate that the president may try to stop the probe by firing Mueller or the person who appointed him, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

"The president had this diversion tactic, obviously, with so-called Spygate," Flake said of Trump's assertions last week. "There is concern that the president is laying the groundwork to move on Bob Mueller or Rosenstein. If that were to happen, obviously, that would cause a constitutional crisis."

Some senior Republicans, including Flake, have sounded similar warnings in recent weeks as the Mueller investigation has plowed forward, drawing frequent denunciations from Trump.

Mueller is also investigating any possible obstruction of justice by Trump. Trump and the White House have repeatedly denied any collusion by the campaign, or any other wrongdoing.

The White House has also said it is not considering firing Mueller.

In a tweet on Sunday, Trump called the investigation a "phony Russia Collusion Witch Hunt" - reiterating his oft-stated resentment at the probe that has clouded his presidency.

After Trump demanded an inquiry into his "spy" claim, the current FBI Director Christopher Wray and Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s probe, held two classified briefings on Thursday for senior lawmakers of both parties on the matter.

Democratic Representative Adam Schiff was among those briefed. Speaking on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, he said, "There is no evidence to support that spy theory. This is just a piece of propaganda the president wants to put out and repeat."

Republican Senator Marco Rubio told the same program that so far he has seen no evidence to support the president's assertions about a campaign "spy."

"What I have seen so far is an FBI effort to learn more about individuals with a history of bragging about links to Russia that pre-exist the campaign. If those people were operating near my office or my campaign, I'd want them investigated," said Rubio, who ran unsuccessfully against Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential primary campaign.

"If it turns out to be something different, we want to know about it. But it is the FBI's job to investigate counterintelligence," Rubio said.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in January 2017 that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an effort to meddle in the U.S. election campaign, included seeking to help Trump win. Moscow has denied the charge.

Flake delivered a blistering attack on the president when he announced last October he would not run this year for re-election to the Senate. Asked if would run for the White House in 2020, he said: "It's not in my plans, but I've not ruled anything out. I do hope that somebody runs on the Republican side other than the president, if nothing else simply to remind Republicans what conservatism is and what Republicans have traditionally stood for." (Reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh Editing by Frances Kerry)

Read Full Story