(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump hinted he may intervene in the Justice Department’s Russia investigation, as a Senate panel advanced a measure to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
“They have a witch hunt against the president of the United States going on,” Trump said Thursday on the “Fox and Friends” morning program. “I’ve taken the position -- and I don’t have to take this position and maybe I’ll change --that I will not be involved with the Justice Department. I will wait until this is over. It’s a total -- it’s all lies and it’s a horrible thing that’s going on.”
It was one of Trump’s strongest hints yet that he might act to constrain or end Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, whether anyone close to Trump colluded in it and whether the president obstructed justice in the matter.
Lawmakers of both parties have warned Trump that firing Mueller would create a constitutional crisis, and that was reflected in a bipartisan, 14-7 vote Thursday by the Senate Judiciary Committee for legislation aimed at protecting Mueller from being fired without cause. The action may prove largely symbolic because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said it won’t get a vote on the Senate floor and there are questions about the measure’s constitutionality.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who the president has criticized and denounced for recusing himself from the Russia probe, said Thursday that he’s sympathetic to Trump’s complaints.
“The president is concerned,” Sessions told a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing. “He’s dealing with France and North Korea and Syria and taxes and regulations and border and crime every day. I wish -- this thing needs to conclude. I understand his frustrations and I understand the American people’s frustrations.”
The president’s comments in a phone interview on the Fox News program centered on his allegation that former FBI Director James Comey, who Trump fired, is guilty of leaking classified information to prompt appointment of a special counsel.
“He leaked classified information in order to try and get a special counsel,” Trump said of Comey. “He is guilty of crimes and if we had a Justice Department that was doing their job instead of spending $8 million trying to find --”
“It’s your Justice Department!” a Fox host said, interrupting Trump.
“You’re right,” the president responded before lashing out at the Justice Department.
“I’m very disappointed in my Justice Department,” he said.
Trump’s comments were lambasted by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, who said in a tweet, “Mr. President, it’s not YOUR Justice Department. It’s the AMERICAN PEOPLE’S Justice Department. And you’ve already improperly interfered with it more than any president since Nixon. Your rant this morning undermines the rule of law.”
In the interview, Trump was asked if he’d sit down with Mueller’s team. He said he would be willing to if he was able, although he said that some of the people involved are "conflicted."
“If you take a look, they’re so conflicted. The people that are doing the investigation -- you have 13 people that are Democrats. You have Hillary Clinton people, you have people who have worked on Hillary Clinton’s foundation,’’ Trump said. “I love the FBI, the FBI loves me. But the top people in the FBI, headed by Comey, were crooked.”
Trump had praised Comey for his honorable conduct during the 2016 campaign, solicited his loyalty, and asked him to let go of an investigation into his former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to memos turned over to House lawmakers last week that Comey wrote to document private conversations between the two.
After the contents of the memos were released, Trump wrote on Twitter that they “show clearly that there was NO COLLUSION and NO OBSTRUCTION.”
On Thursday, Trump took issue with Comey for saying in his memos that during a meeting they had Trump said he never spent the night in Moscow when his Miss Universe pageant was held there in 2013. Comey recounted in the memos that Trump made the assertion to dispute some of the salacious and unverified information contained in a British spy’s dossier about whether the Russians had material to use to blackmail Trump.
“He said I didn’t stay there a night,” Trump told the Fox interviewers, adding that he went to Russia “for a day or so.” “I never said I left immediately.”
Trump and Comey have traded shots since the days before the release of the former lawman’s book “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership.” Trump’s called Comey a “slimeball” and accused him of improperly leaking information. Last week, the president called Comey’s book "third-rate" and lamented that Flynn’s life was destroyed while "Shadey James Comey" can make lots of money.
Comey has said he didn’t leak any classified information when he provided one of his memos to a friend. As recently as a CNN town hall on Wednesday night, he said Trump isn’t morally fit for office.
Responding to Republican demands for an independent investigation into alleged conflicts and wrongdoing in the Justice Department and FBI, Sessions said in his House testimony, “I do not think we need to willy-nilly appoint special counsels.” He added, “As we can see, it really can take on a life of its own.”
Sessions said “the American people need to know we have entirely new top leadership at the FBI,” including “a highly competent capable man of integrity” in Director Christopher Wray.
“We’ve got to be careful we don’t smear everybody if somebody made some errors,” Sessions said. “Some of the errors could be disciplinary matters rather than prosecutorial matters.”
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