The conversation reinforces the notion that the president dismissed Comey primarily because of the FBI’s inquiry into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives.
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the FBI director, James Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.
“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by a U.S. official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Trump added, “I’m not under investigation.”
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Seattle Times news services
The conversation, during a May 10 meeting — the day after he fired Comey — reinforces the notion that Trump dismissed him primarily because of the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives. Trump said as much in one televised interview, but the administration has offered changing justifications for the firing.
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The White House document that contained Trump’s comments was based on notes taken from inside the Oval Office and has been circulated as the official account of the meeting. One official read quotations to The Times, and a second official confirmed the broad outlines of the discussion.
On a day the administration hoped that Trump could leave scandalous allegations at home as he began his first trip abroad as president, the development was unwelcome at the White House.
Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, did not dispute the account of the Oval Office statements. He said in a statement that Comey had put unnecessary pressure on the president’s ability to conduct diplomacy with Russia on matters such as Syria, Ukraine and the Islamic State group.
“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.”
The day after firing Comey, Trump hosted Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in the Oval Office, along with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. The meeting ignited further controversy this week, when it was revealed that Trump had disclosed intelligence from an Israeli counterterrorism operation.
A third government official briefed on the meeting defended the president, saying Trump was using a negotiating tactic when he told Lavrov about the “pressure” he was under. The idea, the official suggested, was to create a sense of obligation with Russian officials and to coax concessions out of Lavrov — on Syria, Ukraine and other issues — by saying that Russian meddling in last year’s election had created enormous political problems for Trump.
The president has been adamant that the meddling did not alter the outcome of the race, but it has become a political cudgel for his opponents.
Many Democrats and some Republicans have raised alarms that the president may have tried to obstruct justice by firing Comey. The Justice Department’s newly appointed special counsel, Robert Mueller, was given the authority to investigate not only potential collusion but also related allegations, which would include obstruction of justice.
Notes from Oval Office meetings and phone calls with foreign leaders are often written down by an aide in what are called MEMCONs, or memorandums of conversations. These are distributed over a classified computer system to senior officials or Cabinet members on a need-to-know basis. The memos can include quotes from the conversation.
Michael Allen, a former senior director on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush White House, said that transcripts of meetings with foreign leaders usually “are treated like the crown jewels.”
“This is an extraordinary release of what are intended to be private conversations,” Allen said.
The FBI’s investigation has bedeviled the Trump administration, and the president personally. Comey publicly confirmed the existence of the investigation in March, telling Congress that his agents were investigating Russian efforts to influence the outcome of the presidential election and whether anyone in the Trump campaign had been involved. Trump has denied any collusion and called the case a waste of money and time. Former officials have testified that they have so far seen no evidence of collusion.
The acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe, has called the case “highly significant” but said there had been no effort by the White House to impede the inquiry.
At first, the administration said Trump fired Comey based on the recommendation of the Justice Department, and because of Comey’s handling of the FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton last year. Officials said it had nothing to do with the Russia investigation.
But the president undercut that argument a day later, telling NBC News, “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.”
U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia engaged in computer hacking and propaganda intended to tip the election toward Trump. Against that backdrop, the president has faced repeated questions about his links to Russia. During his candidacy, Trump’s spokeswoman declared that “there was no communication” with foreign entities during the campaign.
Journalists have since revealed several instances of undisclosed meetings between Trump’s associates and Russians, or contacts that the White House initially mischaracterized. Trump’s first national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, was fired over misstatements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.