President Trump reportedly told senior Russian officials that firing FBI Director James Comey relieved “great pressure” on him because of allegations of nefarious ties between his campaign and Russia. And another report places a senior White House official as a “person of interest” in the bureau’s ongoing investigation.
“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” the New York Times reported Friday, citing a document that summarizes his Oval Office meeting earlier this month with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Moscow’s ambassador to Washington.
In a potentially damning comment, the president reportedly told the Russian officials: “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
The comment could be interpreted, including by special counsel Robert Mueller, as an admission that the president purposely fired Comey to derail the FBI probe. Democratic lawmakers — and even some Republicans — have said such statements could amount to obstructing the investigation.
That conversation allegedly occurred on May 10, the day after Trump fired Comey.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer is not denying the Times report, saying Comey remaining in his post was hindering the president’s ability to work with Russian leaders on matters like Syria, Ukraine and fighting the Islamic State.
“By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” Spicer said in a statement issued Friday afternoon.
“The investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it,” Spicer said. “Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”
Nor did Trump’s chief spokesman deny a Washington Post report that places a senior White House official as a person of interest in the FBI’s investigation. The article, citing multiple sources familiar with the probe.
The Post reported the unidentified person is close to the president, and the sources described the Mueller-led probe as entering a more “active” phase.
On Thursday, Trump used a joint press conference with his Colombian counterpart to deny any wrongdoing.
“No,” Trump barked at a reporter who asked if the president on Feb. 14 privately asked Comey to drop an apparent criminal investigation of his campaign aide and first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Trump also at several points tried to shoot down allegations his campaign aides were in cahoots with Russian officials involved in any election shenanigans.
“There was no collusion,” Trump said Thursday. “Even my enemies have said, ‘There is no collusion.’”
The latter appeared a reference to comments made by James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, who has told lawmakers that he had seen no such evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia — at the point he left government. Trump and his aides leave out a key Clapper caveat: Now a private citizen, he has no knowledge of what several congressional or the FBI investigations are turning up.
In a contradiction to both what he told the Russians and Spicer’s statement, Trump contended Thursday that he fired Comey, in part, because he “was very unpopular with most people” in Washington — Republicans and Democrats. In another contradiction, Trump said he, in part, based his decision to terminate the FBI chief because of a recommendation by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
“Director Comey was very unpopular with most people. I actually thought when I made that decision — and I also got a very strong recommendation, as you know, from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — but when I made that decision I actually thought that it would be a bipartisan decision,” he said during the joint press conference.
What’s emerging, however, is an ever-expanding web of contradictions through which Mueller must sort.
That’s because the president’s Thursday comments appear to contradict information Rosenstein told senators during a briefing on Thursday afternoon. Several members leaving the meeting said the deputy attorney general was aware of Comey’s pending termination before he penned the letter to Trump.
“He was informed that the president intended to fire [Comey], and then he wrote the memo,” Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow said.
Joe Williams contributed to this report.