WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump insisted Thursday that he “won’t be involved” in the special counsel investigation into Russian election meddling, even as he warned he could change his mind, blasted his own Justice Department and accused former FBI Director James Comey of lying about Trump’s eyebrow-raising trip to Moscow in 2013.
Trump, who has reshaped his legal team while considering whether to be interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller, called the investigation “a disgrace” and excoriated federal agents for executing search warrants on his longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and his onetime campaign chairman, Paul Manafort.
“I am very disappointed in my Justice Department. But because of the fact that it’s going on, and I think you’ll understand this, I have decided that I won’t be involved,” the president said in a telephone interview with “Fox & Friends.” “I may change my mind at some point, because what’s going on is a disgrace.”
His broadsides came as the Senate Judiciary Committee readied to vote later Thursday on a bill to protect the special counsel position. While the measure enjoys some bipartisan support, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has repeatedly said he will not bring the proposal a vote in the full Senate because he believes Trump has given no signal that he would dismiss Mueller.
Trump has ratcheted up his attacks on the Russia investigation since the raid on the office and hotel room being used by Cohen, who is under federal criminal investigation in New York for unspecified business dealings. Trump again called it “a witch hunt” and insisted there was “no collusion.” But much of his vitriol was directed at Comey, whom the president fired last May, an act that led to Mueller’s appointment.
Trump laced into Comey as “a leaker” and “a liar.” Trump disputed Comey’s claim that Comey was told by Trump that he did not spent the night in Moscow during his 2013 trip to Russia to attend the Miss Universe pageant.
“He said I didn’t stay there a night. Of course I stayed there,” Trump said. “I stayed there a very short period of time but of course I stayed.”
Comey last year created a series of contemporaneous memos — some classified, some not — to document his interactions with Trump. He wrote in the memos that Trump repeatedly brought up the allegations contained in an unverified document that explored ties between Trump’s orbit and Russia.
Among the most salacious details is that Trump consorted with prostitutes overnight on that trip, a claim Trump has denied. But Comey wrote in the memos that part of Trump’s explanation to him for why it could not be true was that he never stayed the night in Moscow.
Flight records and social media posts from that week indicate that Trump did spend at least one night in Russia. Comey told a CNN broadcast that aired Wednesday — and Trump said he watched — that he was always concerned when someone lies to the FBI, particularly if it’s something an agent never asked about in the first place, as Comey says he did not in this case.
“It tends to reflect consciousness of guilt as we would say in law enforcement,” Comey said. He added: “If they bring things up you didn’t ask about, and if they bring it up and make a false statement about it, that’s — it’s not definitive, but it certainly makes you very concerned about what might be going on there.”
Trump denied ever having that conversation with Comey.
“Those memos are about me and they are phony memos,” Trump told Fox. He also suggested Comey leaked classified information in the memos.
Comey has denied the charge. He has acknowledged that the Justice Department’s inspector general, which has been investigating the FBI’s actions during the Hillary Clinton email probe, was examining whether Comey had complied with FBI policy in how he produced and stored the memos. He said that inquiry is not looking at whether he mishandled classified information, “because that’s frivolous.”
“The bottom line is, I see no credible claim by any serious person that that violated the law,” he said on CNN.
A conscious effort by Trump to mislead the FBI director could lend weight to the allegation, contained in the private research dossier compiled by a former British spy in 2016, that Trump engaged in compromising activity during the trip that exposed him to Russian government blackmail.
The probe has already led to the indictments of several former Trump campaign officials, including Manafort, who is charged with allegedly engaging in conspiracy and money laundering.
Trump has not committed to sitting for an interview with Mueller’s investigators. The president has raged publicly and privately about the investigation, regularly attacks Attorney General Jeff Sessions and has mused about firing Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s inquiry.
Two Republicans and two Democrats have introduced legislation to protect Mueller, who is investigating potential ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign as well as possible obstruction of justice by the president.
The measure approved Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee would give any special counsel a 10-day window to seek expedited judicial review of his or her firing and would put into law existing Justice Department regulations that a special counsel must be fired for good cause.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said the bill is unnecessary and that he won’t let it reach the Senate floor.