WASHINGTON — President Trump bragged to two top Russian officials last week that firing "nut job" FBI Director James Comey eased "great pressure" on him, the New York Times reported today.
"I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job," Trump said, according to the Times. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."
Trump's Oval Office meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, came one day after Comey was fired.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer did not refute the Times story but said it was Comey's "grandstanding and politicizing" of the Russia investigation that put pressure on the administration's ability to engage Moscow.
"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 in a statement to CNN. "By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia."
He added, "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."
Trump's dismissal of Comey was met with bipartisan derision. The move, which came after Trump asked Comey for his loyalty and, according to memos written by the former FBI director, requested he kill an investigation into Trump's top national security adviser, was seen as a clear violation of protocol and had some Democrats calling for impeachment.
The President maintains he was surprised by the response to Comey's firing.
"Director Comey was very unpopular with most people," he said Thursday at a news conference. "When I made that decision, I actually thought that it would be a bipartisan decision. Because you look at all of the people on the Democratic side, not only the Republican side, that were saying such terrible things about Director Comey."
The news broke shortly after Trump took off for his critically important five-country, eight-day foreign trip, the first of his presidency.
The Times report is the latest in what has been a steady stream of news that has arisen out of Trump's decision to fire Comey and which threatens to overshadow Trump's foreign travel.
Initially, the White House argued that Comey was fired based on the recommendations of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote a memo suggesting Comey was unable to continue at the FBI.
That argument quickly evaporated, though, after Trump — both on Twitter and in interviews — said that he had wanted to fire Comey for months.
"I was going to fire Comey," Trump told NBC News' Lester Holt in an interview last week. "Regardless of the recommendation, I was going to fire Comey."
The situation was made worse for Trump on Wednesday when Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
As special counsel, Mueller is "authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters," according to the Justice Department order Rosenstein signed.
Trump said on Thursday that the appointment of a special counsel — which "hurts our country" — proves he is the subject of "the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history."
"I believe it hurts our country terribly, because it shows we're a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country," Trump said at a luncheon with a group of television news anchors.
Trump's meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak was controversial before news of talk about Comey ever came out.
No United States media were invited in for the meeting, but a photographer from TASS, the Russian state media organization, was in the room for at least part of the gathering. The meeting was also a personal request from Vladimir Putin. The Russian President asked that they meet when he spoke with Trump earlier this month.
Shortly after the New York Times reported was published, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, asked the head of the committee, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, to request the document mentioned in the story.
"This new report that President Trump openly admitted to the Russians that he 'faced great pressure' from the FBI's criminal investigation that was 'taken off' when he fired Director Comey is astonishing — and extremely troubling," he said.
Other Democrats pounced on the story, arguing it shows clear attempts by Trump to obstruct justice.
"This is what OBSTRUCTION looks like," Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, tweeted Friday.
And Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, said, "Sorry for yelling guys. BUT IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS S@#%SHOW THEY ARE STILL TRYING TO TAKE AWAY YOUR HEALTHCARE AND RUIN THE INTERNET."
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