WASHINGTON – Just hours after he departed for the Middle East on Friday, President Trump was hit with double-barreled news leaks involving the Russia investigation.
The New York Times reported that Trump told Russian officials that James Comey, the FBI director he abruptly fired last week, is a "nut job," and that dismissing him meant the pressure of the FBI's Russia probe has been "taken off."
The Washington Post reported that a White House adviser close to the president – whose name was not included in the report – has been identified as a "person of interest" in the investigation of possible collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and Russians who sought to influence the 2016 election by hacking Democratic officials.
White House officials did not deny either story, but only stressed that Trump and his staff had no collusion with Russia.
“As the President has stated before, a thorough investigation will confirm that there was no collusion between the campaign and any foreign entity," White House spokesman Sean Spicer said in response to the Post story that a White House official is now ensnared in the probe.
The president himself labeled the ongoing FBI probe a "witch hunt" this week after the Justice Department appointed a special counsel to oversee it in the wake of Comey's firing. Earlier this week, revelations that Comey kept memos detailing his conversations with Trump, including one in which the president apparently pressed his former FBI director to drop the inquiry into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, roiled Washington.
As for the conversation with the Russians about Comey, Spicer essentially put the onus on the ex-FBI director.
"The President has always emphasized the importance of making deals with Russia as it relates to Syria, Ukraine, defeating ISIS and other key issues for the benefit and safety of the American people," Spicer said. "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 denied that Trump fired Comey to block the Russia investigation, saying, "the investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it. The real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations."
On May 10, the day after he fired Comey, Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak, in a meeting that has generated furious controversy.
The Times, citing a report on the meeting a source read to them, said that Trump told the Russians: “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job ... I faced great pressure because o Russia. That’s taken off.” The president also reportedly said: “I’m not under investigation.”
The news said the documents that included the president's comments were based on notes taken from inside the Oval Office and have been circulated as the official account of the May 10 meeting. The report says one official read quotations to The Times, and a second official confirmed the broad outlines of the discussion. Other news reports also said that, during that same meeting, Trump discussed classified counter-terrorism information with the Russians.
Democrats said the new stories underscore their belief that Trump fired Comey in order to shut down the Russia probe.
"If there was any question as to why Comey was really fired, @realDonaldTrump just answered it. As I said, Nixonian," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa.
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