WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump said on Wednesday (July 19) that he never would have appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions had he known Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation that has dogged his presidency, calling the decision "very unfair to the president."
In a remarkable public break with one of his earliest political supporters, Trump complained that Sessions' decision ultimately led to the appointment of a special counsel that should not have happened. "Sessions should have never recused himself and if he was going to recuse himself he should have told me before he took the job and I would have picked somebody else," Trump said.
In a wide-ranging interview with The New York Times, the president also accused James Comey, the FBI director he fired in May, of trying to leverage a dossier of compromising material to keep his job. Trump criticised both the acting FBI director who has been filling in since Comey's dismissal and the deputy attorney general who recommended it. And he took on Robert Mueller III, the special counsel now leading the investigation into Russian meddling in last year's election.
Trump said Mueller was running an office rife with conflicts of interest and warned that investigators would cross a red line if they delve into Trump family finances unrelated to Russia. Trump never said he would order the Justice Department to fire Mueller, nor would he outline circumstances under which he might do so. But he left open the possibility as he expressed deep grievance over an investigation that has taken a political toll in the six months since he took office.
While the interview touched on an array of issues, including health care, foreign affairs and politics, the investigation dominated the conversation. He said that as far as he knew, he was not under investigation himself, despite reports that Mueller is looking at whether the president obstructed justice by firing Comey.
"I don't think we're under investigation," he said. "I'm not under investigation. For what? I didn't do anything wrong."
Describing a newly disclosed informal conversation he had with President Vladimir Putin of Russia during a dinner of world leaders in Germany earlier this month, Trump said they talked for about 15 minutes, mostly about "pleasantries."
But Trump did say that they talked "about adoptions".
Putin banned American adoptions of Russian children in 2012 after the U.S. enacted sanctions on Russians accused of human rights abuses, an issue that remains a sore point in relations with Moscow.
Trump acknowledged that it was "interesting" that adoptions came up since his son, Donald Trump Jr, said that was the topic of a meeting he had with several Russians with ties to the Kremlin during last year's campaign. Even though emails show that the session had been set up to pass along incriminating information about Hillary Clinton, the president said he did not need such material from Russia about Clinton last year because he already had more than enough.
The interview came as the White House was trying to move beyond the Russia story and regain momentum following the collapse of health care legislation in the Senate. Relaxed and engaged, the president sat at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, with only one aide, Hope Hicks, sitting in on the interview. The session was sandwiched between a White House lunch with Republican senators and an event promoting "Made in America" week.
Over the course of 50 minutes, the often-fiery Trump demonstrated his more amiable side, joking about holding hands with the president of France and musing about having a military parade down a main avenue in Washington. He took satisfaction that unemployment has fallen and stock markets have risen to record highs on his watch.
At one point, his daughter, Ivanka, arrived at the doorway with her daughter Arabella, who ran to her grandfather and gave him a kiss. He greeted the 6-year-old girl as "baby", then urged her to show the reporters her ability to speak Chinese. She obliged.
But Trump left little doubt during the interview that the Russia investigation remained a sore point.
Trump's pique at Sessions seemed fresh even months after the attorney general's recusal. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump's candidacy and was rewarded with a key Cabinet slot, but has been more distant from the president lately.
"Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the president," he added. "How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, 'Thanks, Jeff, but I'm not going to take you.' It's extremely unfair - and that's a mild word - to the president."
Trump also faulted Sessions for his testimony during Senate confirmation hearings when Sessions said he had not met with any Russians even though he had met at least twice with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. "Jeff Sessions gave some bad answers," the president said. "He gave some answers that were simple questions and should have been simple answers, but they weren't." A spokesman for Sessions declined to comment on Wednesday.
The president added a new allegation against Comey, whose dismissal has become a central issue for critics who said it amounts to an attempt to obstruct the investigation into Russian meddling in last year's election and any possible collusion with Trump's team.
Trump recalled that a little more than two weeks before his inauguration, Comey and other intelligence officials briefed him at Trump Tower on Russian meddling. Comey afterward pulled Trump aside and told him about a dossier that had been assembled by a former British spy filled with salacious allegations against the incoming president, including supposed sexual escapades in Moscow. The FBI has not corroborated the most sensational assertions in the dossier.
In the interview, Trump said he believes Comey told him about the dossier to implicitly make clear he had something to hold over the president. "In my opinion, he shared it so that I would think he had it out there," Trump said. As leverage? "Yeah, I think so," Trump said. "In retrospect."
The president dismissed the assertions in the dossier: "When he brought it to me, I said this is really, made-up junk. I didn't think about any of it. I just thought about man, this is such a phony deal." Comey declined to comment on Wednesday.
But Comey and other intelligence officials decided it was best for him to raise the subject with Trump alone because he was going to remain as FBI director. Comey testified before Congress that he disclosed the details of the dossier to Trump because he thought that the media would soon be publishing details from it and that Trump had a right to know what information was out there about him.
Trump refuted Comey's claim that in a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office on Feb 14, the president asked him to end the investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Comey testified before Congress that Trump kicked the vice president, attorney general and several other senior administration officials out of the room before having the discussion with Comey.
"I don't remember even talking to him about any of this stuff," Trump said. "He said I asked people to go. Look, you look at his testimony. His testimony is loaded up with lies, OK.?"
Trump was also critical of Mueller, a longtime former FBI director, reprising some of his past complaints that lawyers in his office contributed money to Clinton's campaign. He noted that he actually interviewed Mueller to replace Comey just before his appointment as special counsel.
"He was up here and he wanted the job," Trump said. After he was named special counsel, "I said, 'What the hell is this all about?' Talk about conflicts. But he was interviewing for the job. There were many other conflicts that I haven't said, but I will at some point."
Asked if Mueller's investigation would cross a red line if it expands to look at his family's finances beyond any relationship to Russia, Trump said, "I would say yes." He would not say what he would do about it. "I think that's a violation. Look, this is about Russia."
The president also expressed discontent with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a former federal prosecutor from Baltimore. When Sessions recused himself, the president said he was irritated to learn where his deputy was from. "There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any," he said of the predominantly Democratic city.
He complained that Rosenstein had in effect been on both sides when it came to Comey. The deputy attorney general recommended Comey be fired but then appointed Mueller, who may be investigating whether the dismissal was an obstruction of justice. "Well, that's a conflict of interest," Trump said. "Do you know how many conflicts of interests there are?"
As for Andrew McCabe, the acting FBI director, the president suggested that he too had a conflict. McCabe's wife, Jill McCabe, received nearly US$500,000 (S$684,000) in 2015 during a losing campaign for the Virginia state Senate from a political action committee affiliated with Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a close friend of Hillary and Bill Clinton.
In his first description of his dinnertime conversation with Putin at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany, Trump downplayed its significance. He said his wife, Melania, was seated next to Putin at the other end of a table filled with world leaders.
"The meal was going toward dessert," he said. "I went down just to say hello to Melania, and while I was there I said hello to Putin. Really, pleasantries more than anything else. It was not a long conversation, but it was, you know, could be 15 minutes. Just talked about things. Actually, it was very interesting, we talked about adoption."
He noted the adoption issue came up in the June 2016 meeting between his son and Russian visitors. "I actually talked about Russian adoption with him," he said, meaning Putin. "Which is interesting because it was a part of the conversation that Don had in that meeting."
But the president repeated that he did not know about his son's meeting at the time and added that he did not need the Russians to provide damaging information about Clinton.
"There wasn't much I could say about Hillary Clinton that was worse than what I was already saying," he said. "Unless somebody said that she shot somebody in the back, there wasn't much I could add to my repertoire."