WASHINGTON — During his meeting with Russian officials last week, President Donald Trump said recently fired FBI Director James Comey was a “nut job” whose ouster relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a report Friday in The New York Times.
The Times cited notes from a May 10 Oval Office meeting, the day after Trump fired Comey.
Separately, The Washington Post reported Friday that the FBI investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign was moving closer to the White House. Law enforcement officials now consider a senior Trump adviser a “person of interest” in the probe, the Post reported, citing people familiar with the matter. The report did not name the adviser.
The developments were a blow to White House efforts to tamp down interest in the Russia investigation as Trump and his staff boarded Air Force One for Saudi Arabia, first stop on his first foreign trip as president. The details of his comments to the Russians would seem to bolster theories that Trump fired Comey in an effort to choke off the Russia investigation.
Earlier this week, the Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to take over the federal investigation in an effort to re-establish independence from the White House.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told Congress Friday he stands by a memo he wrote bluntly criticizing Comey. But he made clear it was not his intention for Trump or other White House officials to use the document to justify firing Comey, which is what they have done.
In closed-door meetings with lawmakers on Thursday and Friday, Rosenstein said he wrote the memo after Trump told him one day before the May 9 firing that he wanted to dismiss Comey. Rosenstein said that though he was personally fond of Comey, “I thought it was appropriate to seek a new leader.”
The Justice Department on Friday issued the text of Rosenstein’s opening remarks for the briefings on Capitol Hill. That was two days after Rosenstein named Mueller as a special counsel to investigate possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Trump has said he plans to nominate a new FBI director soon, and that had been expected before his departure. However the White House said there would be no announcement Friday.
The appointment of Mueller as special counsel has drawn generally favorable comments from Democrats and from some Republicans as well. But lawmakers at both congressional sessions expressed frustration that Rosenstein would say little in answer to their questions about his actions — or others’ — before Comey’s firing.
“There was considerable frustration in the room,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., a member of the Armed Services Committee. “This renewed my confidence that we should not have confidence in this administration. I don’t think (Rosenstein) did a lot to bolster our confidence in him today.”
The White House has struggled since Comey’s firing to explain the chain of events that led to it and who exactly made the decision. Trump has insisted at times that the decision was his alone, but he also has pointed — as recently as Thursday — to the “very strong” recommendation from Rosenstein.
Rosenstein made it abundantly clear to the lawmakers that he drafted his memo only after Trump told him of his plans to dismiss the FBI director.
“My memorandum is not a statement of reasons to justify a for-cause termination,” he said. But he added, “I wrote it. I believe it. I stand by it.”
The memo focuses on Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, particularly the FBI director’s decision to divulge details to the public at various junctures. Rosenstein denounced that as “profoundly wrong and unfair.”
House members and senators said Rosenstein in his briefings steered clear of specifics in answering questions about his appointment of Mueller but made clear the former FBI director, will have wide latitude to pursue the investigation, potentially including criminal charges.
Trump has reacted furiously to the appointment. However, at a combative news conference Thursday, he fell short in trying to resolve questions about investigations into his campaign and his first four months in office.
Asked point-blank if he’d done anything that might merit prosecution or even impeachment, Trump said no — and then added of the lingering allegations and questions: “I think it’s totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so.”
The appointment of the special counsel indicates other believe that’s still open to question.
On Capitol Hill, Rosenstein said that he and Attorney General Jeff Sessions had “discussed the need for new leadership at the FBI” in one of their first meetings, and that he believed Comey had damaged the credibility of the bureau and the Justice Department through the Clinton case. Sessions has recused himself from the Trump-Russia probe, citing his close involvement in the Trump campaign last year.
Rosenstein denied media reports from last week that Comey had asked him for additional resources for his investigation before Trump fired him.
Associated Press writers Eileen Sullivan, Matthew Daly, Richard Lardner, Stephen Ohlemacher, Andrew Taylor, Kevin Freking and Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.