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Reported Trump comments to diplomats emphasize role of Russia probe in Comey firing decision

May 19, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
President Trump faces new revelations over the investigation of alleged collusion between campaign aides and Russia. Judy Woodruff discusses reports published by The Washington Post and The New York Times with Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times and John Yang.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump faces new revelations tonight over the investigation of alleged collusion between campaign aides and Russia.

The New York Times reports that the president told Russian diplomats last week that FBI Director James Comey was — quote — “a real nutjob” and that firing him removed — quote — “great pressure” on the president over the Russia probe.

Separately, The Washington Post is reporting that a current senior White House adviser is now a person of interest in the investigation.

The stories broke just after the president and first lady boarded Air Force One and took off for Saudi Arabia. It’s the first stop on a nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe.

For more, we are going to turn first to Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times.

Mark, thank you for being here.

The story in your newspaper that broke just a couple of hours ago is interesting, because it’s what the president said in that meeting he had with the foreign minister of Russia and the Russian ambassador to the U.S.

MARK MAZZETTI, The New York Times: Yes, it is an extraordinary moment, where this meeting we already knew happened the day after Trump fired James Comey as FBI director.

And now we know that — and one of the reasons he fired him, he has said, is in part because of this Russia probe. And then he’s meeting with Russian officials. And he tells that he got rid of this — quote — “nutjob,” which has relieved pressure from him.

So, it’s sort of amazing to hear that the president said that to the Russians in the Oval Office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the fact that, of course, it is the Russians that are the subject of this — the Trump connection to the Russians is the subject of the investigation.

MARK MAZZETTI: That’s right.

And so there’s a tremendous amount of irony here, maybe intentional, maybe not. But the — it also, I think most importantly, probably reinforces the idea that the Russia probe did play a pretty significant factor in the president’s decision to dismiss Comey.

As you know, over the last week, since Comey was fired, we have heard a number of justifications for the firing. And the president has said once that the Russia probe played a part, but this is another example of the president saying that the Russia FBI investigation did play a big role.

So, I mean, this is what gets to the central question here of whether there’s really something improper in the firing. People have raised the question of whether it was obstruction of justice. And him bringing it up to the Russians just is kind of another data point here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Exactly.

And, as you point out, there have been different, differing explanations over the course of the last week or so, at one point, of course, the White House originally saying it had had to do with the way Jim Comey handled the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, but then eventually, as you say, the president referred to Russia.

I also found it striking, Mark Mazzetti, what the White House had to say, that they basically acknowledged that the president said this, and that they said at one point, “Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”

So, they’re not disputing this was said.

MARK MAZZETTI: No. They’re characterizing it a little bit differently.

They are saying what he was referring to was that he had been under a lot of pressure by the Russia investigations, that the Russians themselves had put him under pressure, so he was kind of using this as a sort of bargaining chip, to telling these Russian visiting officials, you guys put me under pressure by this thing, and so now kind of let’s make a deal, let’s move on to other things, so, he was using it as leverage.

Whether you want to accept that justification or not, that’s the White House is saying, although, as you said, they’re not disputing the contents of what we reported.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The last thing, Mark Mazzetti, is I think the criticism the president is making of James Comey. Originally, it was a fairly mild criticism. It’s gravitated all the way to he was a — quote — “real nutjob.”

MARK MAZZETTI: Yes.

And we now, by now, know how the president speaks or tweets. So, frankly, none of that, the characterization sounded like it was off-base. You could certainly hear the president making a comment like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Mazzetti with The New York Times, we thank you very much.

MARK MAZZETTI: OK. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn now to our own White House correspondent, John Yang.

So, John, you have been absorbing this New York Times story. Separately, as we said, The Washington Post has a story about a senior adviser to the president currently in the White House who is now a — quote — “person of interest” in this Russia investigation.

JOHN YANG: That’s right Judy.

The significance of this is, this is the first time that someone still in the administration is being reported to be a person of interest in this investigation. Before, we knew about subpoenas for Mike Flynn, the fired national security advisory, and for Paul Manafort, the former chairman of the campaign.

But this is the first time they’re describing this as someone close to the president. But The Post said that their source wouldn’t describe that person any further, give them any more details.

There are also indications of The Post saying this investigation is beginning to intensify, moving to a new phase of actually interviewing witnesses issuing subpoenas, using a grand jury to investigate and issue those subpoenas, so that this is beginning to move.

Sean Spicer responded to The Post story, saying, as he has since this began, that “Any investigation will prove that there was no collusion between the campaign and the other government.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, John, of course it’s striking, all this coming out just within a couple of hours after the president takes off on Air Force One for his first overseas trip.

This has been some week for Twitter. You have been there every day. How are they dealing with this?

JOHN YANG: It is interesting, because this has been a chaotic beginning to this administration.

But the people I talk to acknowledge the past two weeks, and this week especially, does feel different, that sort of the bombshell revelations every day, every afternoon, it just keeps coming.

Now, you saw a little bit of a difference in the response this week, which I thought was interesting. When The New York Times broke the story about the Comey memo, about saying that the president asked for his loyalty, his personal loyalty…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

JOHN YANG: … there really was — there was a paper statement, but then that was it.

You didn’t see anybody going out to defend the president or to give their version on television after that. There was even someone booked. Kellyanne Conway was booked on FOX to do that, but then canceled.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All of it’s interesting. John Yang, thank you.

And we’re going to get the analysis of Mark Shields and David Brooks on all this and more a little later in the program.

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