President Donald Trump is facing new pressure over his decision to abruptly fire FBI Director James Comey after the New York Times revealed on Friday that the president told Russian officials in the Oval Office last week that Comey’s ouster takes “great pressure” off him.
Meanwhile, the federal investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia has tagged a current White House official as a “significant person of interest,” the Washington Post reported on Friday. It did not name the official.
The two stories come after a week of damning revelations about the Trump White House, which is now engulfed in scandal and facing a special prosecutor. Trump admitted last week that he fired Comey in part because of the Russia investigation, blowing up the White House’s message that the firing was based on a Department of Justice recommendation.
The White House has also grappled with news that Trump allegedly revealed highly classified information about an Islamic State threat to the Russians in the same meeting he allegedly made the Comey remarks, and that he reportedly pressured Comey to ease off the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The new Times story cited a document that summarized Trump’s meeting with Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.
“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said, according to the Times. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
White House press secretary Sean Spicer offered a statement that did not dispute Trump’s quotes and instead presented them as the president talking frankly about the “pressure” Comey had put on Trump’s diplomatic responsibilities.
He also attacked the leaks coming out of the U.S. government.
“The President has always emphasized the importance of making deals with Russia as it relates to Syria, Ukraine, defeating ISIS and other key issues for the benefit and safety of the American people. 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 in the statement.
“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,” he added.
The Washington Post report underscored the seriousness of the investigation into possible collusion, which was taken over earlier this week by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who was appointed as a special prosecutor.
In reaction to that report, Spicer said, “As the President has stated before – a thorough investigation will confirm that there was no collusion between the campaign and any foreign entity.”
For an embattled White House communications team, facing the flood of negative stories and criticisms from the president, the stories were an exclamation point at the end of a disastrous week and will further cast a shadow over Trump’s high-stakes foreign trip.
Asked if Trump might have to cut short his nine-day trip due to the latest controversies, a White House official said such a move was “doubtful.”
Alex Isenstadt contributed to this report.