During a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak last week, President Trump told the men that fired FBI Director James Comey was a “nut job,” and that his removal would relieve pressure on his administration over its ties to Russia.
The New York Times reported the exchange on Friday, and the White House did not dispute it—an unusual move for a communications staff that has offered at least token pushback and often serious dispute even on stories that are unmistakably correct. During the same meeting, Trump revealed highly sensitive classified information, shared with the U.S. by an ally, about an ISIS plot.
In a statement, Press Secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged that Trump believed dismissing Comey would distract from the Russia probe.
“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. “The investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports that the ongoing probe into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia has “identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest.” The paper reported that its sources say the person is a current senior staffer, but would not further identify who it is. Trump has repeatedly denied that he had any ties to Russian interference in the campaign, and says he has no business ties to Russia, either.
The exchange with the Russians is the latest confirmation that Trump’s motivation in firing Comey was not, as he and his aides initially claimed, Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails; nor was it, as they subsequently claimed, a result of Comey losing the confidence of FBI agents. Instead, as Trump suggested in an interview with NBC News’s Lester Holt, he was upset about the Russia probe. A slew of other reports confirmed that behind closed doors, Trump was upset about the investigation, and Comey’s testimony under oath that Barack Obama had not “wiretapped” Trump, as the president claimed without evidence. His comments, and Spicer’s statement, also bolster allegations of political tampering and perhaps obstruction of justice by the president.
Comey’s approach to the Clinton investigation was subject to withering criticism by a bipartisan group of Justice Department veterans who felt it was too public. In a memo to Trump on May 9, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein sharply criticized Comey, and Trump initially offered the memo as his justification for firing the FBI director.
Despite Spicer’s charge of “grandstanding,” the few public statements Comey made about the Russia investigation were under oath in front of congressional panels. Comey also said he had been authorized by the Justice Department to confirm the existence of a probe into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Presumably, that means Rosenstein.
In testimony to Congress this week, Rosenstein sought to distance himself from the Comey firing. He said that while he had long disagreed with Comey’s handling of the Clinton case, he only wrote the memo on May 8 after learning that Trump had decided to fire Comey. Rosenstein also said he had discussed firing Comey in his first meetings with Sessions, before the attorney general was confirmed. Finally, in what read as a dig at the White House parading the memo publicly, he described it as a “candid internal memorandum.” Rosenstein was reportedly upset about his words being used as the public pretext for firing Comey.
If Trump believed that the Comey firing would remove pressure, however, he was deeply mistaken. The dismissal has set off a cascade of damaging stories, and more leaks—including the one to the Post on Friday—adding fuel to Russia stories. And most consequentially, it led to the Justice Department on Wednesday appointing Robert Mueller, the former director of the FBI as a special counsel to investigate ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.