US President Donald Trump told visiting Russian officials in a May 10 White House meeting that he had fired FBI Director James Comey because “he was crazy, a real nut job,” the New York Times reported Friday.
During the meeting — in which Trump allegedly revealed classified information provided by Israel — the president reportedly said Comey’s firing a day earlier had had relieved him of “great pressure” over his ties to Russia. “That’s taken off,” he said.
The Times cited a document summarizing the meeting which it said was provided by a government official. It said the paper was based on notes taken during the meeting inside the Oval Office.
He was also said to have told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak that “I’m not under investigation.”
Contacted by the Times, White House press secretary Sean Spicer did not deny Trump had made the statements, saying Comey’s “grandstanding and politicizing” of the Russia probe had put “unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia.”
One government official interviewed by the Times claimed Trump’s talk of “pressure” was a negotiation tactic, intended to press upon Moscow that its meddling in the 2016 elections had raised problems for the president, and to induce Russia into diplomatic concessions.
Trump on Thursday lashed out at the appointment of a special counsel to investigate allegations that his campaign collaborated with Russia to sway the 2016 election, tweeting that it was “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”
The Justice Department on Wednesday appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller to lead the investigation. Mueller will have sweeping powers and the authority to prosecute any crimes he uncovers.
The surprise announcement to hand the probe over to Mueller, a lawman with deep bipartisan respect, was a striking shift for Trump’s Justice Department, which had resisted increasingly loud calls from Democrats for an outside prosecutor. It immediately escalated the legal stakes — and the potential political damage — for a president who has tried to dismiss the matter as partisan witch hunt and a “hoax.”
In another Twitter post Thursday, Trump said: “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel (sic) appointed.” He did not provide examples or evidence of any alleged “illegal acts.”
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
The announcement, the latest in the shock-a-day Washington saga, was made by deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The White House counsel’s office was alerted only after the order appointing Mueller was signed, said a senior White House official, who was not authorized to speak publicly by name and commented only on condition of anonymity.
In a written statement, Trump insisted anew there were no nefarious ties between his campaign and Russia.
“A thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity,” he declared. “I look forward to this matter concluding quickly.”
Mueller’s broad mandate gives him not only oversight of the Russia probe, but also “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” That would surely include Trump’s firing of Comey.
Republicans have largely stood behind Trump in the first months of his presidency as the FBI and congressional investigations into Russia’s election meddling intensified. But GOP lawmakers have grown increasingly anxious since Trump fired Comey, who had been leading the bureau’s probe — and after Comey associates said he had notes from a meeting in which Trump asked him to shut down the investigation into the Russia ties of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Trump has repeatedly slammed the FBI and congressional investigations as a “hoax” and blamed disgruntled officials at intelligence agencies for leaking information related to the probes. During a commencement address Wednesday at the Coast Guard Academy, he complained bitterly about criticism he’s faced.
“No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly,” he said.
The White House has disputed Comey’s account of his February conversation with Trump concerning Flynn but has not offered specifics. Several congressional Republicans said Wednesday that if Trump did suggest that Comey “let this go” regarding Flynn’s Russian contacts, it was probably just a joke, light banter.
Both of the explosive revelations — that the president pressed his FBI director to drop a federal investigation before later firing him, and that he disclosed classified information to senior Russian officials — came from anonymous sources, and the White House was quick to denounce the leaks and deny any impropriety. Trump aides said he never tried to squelch the Flynn investigation nor made inappropriate disclosures to the Russians.
On Capitol Hill, Comey was clearly the man in demand, with three committees working to seat him at their witness tables soon, two in the Senate and one in the House.
The Senate intelligence committee also asked acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe to turn over any notes Comey might have made regarding discussions he had with White House or Justice Department officials about Russia’s efforts to influence the election.