By JOHN T. BENNETT and JOE WILLIAMS
President Donald Trump denied pressing former FBI Director James B. Comey to drop a criminal investigation of his first national security adviser, and said his campaign did not collude with Russia.
“No,” Trump told a reporter during a joint press conference with his Colombian counterpart, before trying to shut down the line of inquiry with this: “Next question.”
Asked earlier in the brief session with reporters about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to appoint a special counsel to take over the FBI’s investigation, Trump replied: “I respect the decision.”
But he quickly repeated a morning tweet when he described the entire Russia matter this way: “The entire thing has been a witch hunt.”
Trump, during the presser, also again hung his justification for firing Comey on a memo from Rosenstein that made a case for the dismissal of the former FBI director.
“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.
Those comments appear to contradict information Rosenstein told senators during a briefing on Thursday. 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,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told Roll Call.
But the meeting, which was requested last week after Comey’s surprise firing, did not provide senators much new information, largely because of concerns Rosenstein had about disclosing anything that could impact the ongoing federal investigation.
“I don’t know more about the firing of Comey and the Russia investigation,” Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., told Roll Call leaving the meeting.
The president on Thursday used the present tense — “is” — several times when denying any nefarious ties between Moscow and his campaign associates; that structure would not cover the two-year 2016 election cycle.
But he later used the past tense — though he mixed his tenses: “There was no collusion. Even my enemies have said, ‘There is no collusion.’”
The latter appears a reference to comments made by James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence. He has said at the point he left government, he had seen no such evidence to collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia; but he told lawmakers that as a private citizen, he has no window into any of the ongoing congressional or federal probes.
Trump also contended that Comey “was very unpopular with most people” in Washington — Republicans and Democrats.
Members of Trump’s own party mostly backed his sacking of the FBI chief, though some questioned its timing since Comey was investigating Trump's closest associates and possibly the president himself. Democrats blasted the move, saying the president appeared intent on shutting down the bureau’s probe.
That move, along with several after it, however, appears to have done the opposite. The president now faces another former FBI director, Robert Mueller, as the special counsel leading it.
While briefly addressing one question about the Russia matter, Trump said the entire situation “divides” the United States.
After one answer on the matter, he said it is important that it be put behind the country so Washington can focus on his domestic agenda. He said Washington needs to get back to issues like creating jobs, health care — saying “we don’t have health care in this country” — and his broad outline of a tax cut plan, which he promised would, if passed, be the “biggest tax cut in the history of our nation.”
Trump appeared to criticize Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos as he stood mere feet away, saying that country’s rate of coca production is too high. He then said “the wall” would help stop the flow of Colombian narcotics into the United States, referring to his promised U.S.-Mexico border barrier.
Later, Santos did not bite when asked about the proposed border wall, saying more diplomatically that the U.S., Colombia and other countries must work together to tamp down production, trafficking and consumption of illicit drugs.
Trump bit, however.
“Walls work. Just as Israel,” Trump said, apparently referring to its West Bank barrier. “They work. Believe me, they work.”