President Donald Trump vowed Thursday to take a hands-off approach to the Justice Department until the special counsel’s Russia probe wraps up — but he also made it clear he could change his mind at any moment.
During a high-octane and wide-ranging phone interview with “Fox & Friends,” Trump said he has decided he will “not be involved with the Justice Department” while special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is still conducting his investigation of Russia’s 2016 election meddling, possible Trump campaign collusion, and whether the president obstructed justice.
Trump disclosed his hands-off intention after slamming former FBI Director James B. Comey for crafting memos after his conversations with Trump early in the presidency, and for his recently published book that paints an unflattering portrait of the president.
“This is a big mistake, this book. He is guilty of crimes,” an amped-up Trump said, referring to what he and his top aides say are documents Comey had a friend leak to the media that they claim contained classified information. (A sitting FBI director can declassify such information.)
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“And if we had a Justice Department that was doing their job instead of spending …” Trump roared. One of the program’s hosts interrupted him, saying the president is in charge of the Justice Department and could act to remedy any perceived ailments there.
That’s when the president launched into his hands-off pledge. But he sent a message to Mueller and his superiors that he could, at any moment, decide changes are needed at Justice.
“I have taken this position — and I don’t have to take this position and maybe I’ll change — I will not be involved with the Justice Department,” Trump said. “I will wait till this is over. … It’s all lies.”
Trump and his senior aides contend a sitting president has the legal authority to fire a special counsel, but they cannot point to any internal White House legal analysis to support that stance. There is no firm conclusion on the matter among legal experts. While the author of the late 1990s special counsel regulations — who went on to work for former President Barack Obama — says Trump can terminate Mueller, other former Justice Department officials say only the attorney general — or, in this case, the deputy AG, since Jeff Sessions has recused himself — can do so under those guidelines.
(In a later rant during the Fox interview, the president unveiled a new nickname, this one for the former FBI director with whom he is feuding: “Leakin’ Lyin’ Comey.”)
The president also delivered a harsh rebuke of the FBI, accusing them of “a fix” by not seizing Democratic National Committee servers and going after party officials for what he claims is “collusion” with Russia.
“What kind of FBI? They break down doors for Paul Manafort. … They undo the lock from Michael Cohen early in the morning,” he said of two former aides in legal hot water due to things uncovered by Mueller and his team. “And yet, they walked into the DNC and they won’t give them the server. They’re like, ‘Oh, OK. We’ll leave.’ That’s not the FBI. That’s a fix.”
Trump on Cohen
The rollercoaster-like interview on the president’s preferred morning news show also hit on other matters, including the legal jeopardy of Cohen, his personal lawyer who could face charges in a case Mueller referred to federal officials in New York.
The president admitted that Cohen represented him with porn actress Stormy Daniels, but he did not say whether he personally knew about or authorized a $130,000 payment she says Cohen made to her in return for her silence about a sexual encounter she once had with then-businessman and reality television star Trump.
And the president tried to build ample distance between himself and his longtime attorney, whose office and hotel suite were raided by federal authorities who confiscated reams of information and electronic devices that could contain information about work Cohen did for Trump.
“He’s a good person. … Michael is ... really a businessman. I don’t know his business. He’s got a business. He also practices law. I have nothing to do with his business,” an agitated Trump said. “They’re looking at something to do with his business. … I have many attorneys. Sadly, I have so many attorneys you wouldn’t believe it.”
The president claims Cohen did only a “tiny, tiny little fraction” of all the legal work conducted by the entirety of his legal team over the years. But he did confirm Cohen represented him on “this crazy Stormy Daniels deal.”
Cohen said this week he will plead the Fifth in a civil suit brought by Daniels, and Trump said he is “not involved” in that case and has been told by unspecified officials that “I’m not involved.”
Michael Avenatti, Daniels’ lawyer, told CNN later Thursday morning that Trump’s statement about Cohen representing him in the “deal” with the porn actress “contradicts” the president’s previous denial of knowledge of the alleged payment.
Avenatti said he intends to use the Thursday statement to try to force Trump to sit for a deposition.
Trump on North Korea
On his possible summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the president again said he might walk out of the meeting if he deems Kim is not serious about cutting a legitimate deal. And he said the two sides are down to five possible locations and “three or four” possible dates.
But he also blasted “Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd,” host of NBC’s “Meet the Press” program, for suggesting the president has given up leverage in order to get in a room with Kim.
“This guy shouldn’t even be on the show,” Trump said, again roaring. “I haven’t given up anything.” He then noted Kim has vowed to denuclearize, stop nuclear and missile testing and to close some nuclear-related sites.
“They gave it up before we even asked,” the president said, and then took one final shot at Todd: “Fake news.”