WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump told The New York Times in an interview Wednesday that he never would have appointed Jeff Sessions as attorney general had he known Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation.
In an extraordinary denouncement of one of his earliest backers in Washington, Trump said Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from all matters related to Russia was “very unfair to the president.”
“Sessions should have never recused himself,” Trump told the paper, “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.”
Sessions recused himself from any investigation related to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, including the ongoing Russian probe, in March after a fraught confirmation hearing before the Senate where Sessions incorrectly said he had not met with any Russians during the campaign.
“Jeff Sessions gave some bad answers,” Trump said on Wednesday. “He gave some answers that were simple questions and should have been simple answers, but they weren’t.”
Sessions’ recusal, announced following revelations that he had failed to disclose meetings with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., effectively paved the way for the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel. Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and potential ties between the Russian government and Trump campaign aides has cast a growing cloud on Trump’s administration.
In the interview, Trump also appeared to threaten Mueller, suggesting he had damaging information on the former FBI director.
Trump said Mueller’s selection for the job was a conflict of interest because Trump had interviewed him to serve as the replacement FBI director.
“There were many other conflicts that I haven’t said, but I will at some point,” Trump said.
He lobbed similar conflict of interest charges at acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and accused former FBI Director James Comey of briefing him on a dossier of unverified, incriminating information in an effort to gain leverage over the soon-to-be president.
The Justice Department declined to comment on the interview.
Trump also addressed the previously undisclosed conversation he had with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a dinner for world leaders at a summit in Germany.
Trump said the pair spoke for about 15 minutes at the dinner and said the conversation consisted of “pleasantries more than anything else” — though he said he and Putin also discussed adoption.
Russia had banned Americans from adopting Russian children in response to the Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress in 2012, which allowed the U.S. to impose sanctions on Russians deemed as human rights violators.
It’s the same topic Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., says he discussed with a Russian lawyer at a meeting that has drawn intense scrutiny — a coincidence Trump described in the interview as “interesting.”
Trump told The Times that Comey, whom he fired in May, informed him about a salacious dossier so that he would have leverage over the soon-to-be president.
The dossier included a wide range of allegations, including salacious and unproven ones about Trump. CNN reported in February that investigators had corroborated some points in the dossier, but not the salacious details. In the interview, Trump said he had immediately written it off as false.
“In my opinion, he shared it so that I would think he had it out there,” Trump told The Times Wednesday.
Comey briefed then-President-elect Trump on the dossier during their first ever meeting on January 6 in Trump Tower.
In written testimony to the Senate intelligence committee, Comey said, “The IC leadership thought it important, for a variety of reasons, to alert the incoming President to the existence of this material, even though it was salacious and unverified.”
Among them, Comey wrote, were that they knew the media was pursuing the story and they wanted to blunt any sort of defensive briefing.
Trump said Wednesday that when Comey brought him the information, “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.”
During the same written testimony, Comey said that Trump told him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Trump said Wednesday that he doesn’t “remember even talking to him about any of the stuff.”
“He said I asked people to go,” Trump said. “Look, you look at his testimony. His testimony is loaded up with lies, OK?”
Trump also expressed discontent with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who wrote a memo to Trump shortly after assuming the job that recommended dismissing Comey but then appointed Mueller, whose probe includes whether Comey’s dismissal was obstruction of justice.
“That’s a conflict of interest,” Trump said. “Do you know how many conflicts of interests there are?”
Trump also expressed irritation when he learned Rosenstein was from Baltimore.
“There are very few Republicans in Baltimore,” he said, “if any.”