Trump buf­feted by new scan­dals

Aide un­der scru­tiny; ‘nut job’ re­mark stings

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Noah Bierman and Lisa Mascaro

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Trump told a pair of Rus­sian en­voys that his abrupt de­ci­sion to fire FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey — whom he de­scribed as “crazy, a real nut job” — had re­lieved “great pres­sure” on him be­cause of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, ac­cord­ing to a pub­lished re­port.

Adding to Trump’s cas­cad­ing le­gal and po­lit­i­cal woes, the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion reached di­rectly into the White House for the first time Fri­day with a sep­a­rate re­port that an un­named Trump aide is un­der fed­eral scru­tiny as a per­son of sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­est.

The White House did not dis­pute ei­ther ac­count, which cre­ated a new furor just as Trump was tak­ing off from An­drews Air Force Base on his first of­fi­cial

trip over­seas, a nine-day visit to five coun­tries in the Mid­dle East and Europe.

Un­til now, the FBI probe was only known to be fo­cused on whether mem­bers of Trump’s cam­paign or other as­so­ciates had col­luded with Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence to in­ter­fere with the 2016 pres­i­den­tial race.

The des­ig­na­tion of a per­son of in­ter­est does not sig­nal that crim­i­nal charges are im­mi­nent, or even likely, for one of Trump’s aides. But it does sug­gest the in­quiry has­moved into a new phase, one po­ten­tially far more dam­ag­ing for the pres­i­dent since it now ap­pears in his di­rect or­bit.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which be­gan last July, clearly is ac­cel­er­at­ing. A fed­eral grand jury in Vir­ginia has is­sued sub­poe­nas and the FBI is con­duct­ing in­ter­views. On Wed­nes­day, the Jus­tice De­part­ment for­mally handed off the in­ves­ti­ga­tion to a spe­cial coun­sel, for­mer FBI Di­rec­tor Robert S. Mueller III, to en­sure its in­de­pen­dence from White House pres­sure.

Comey agreed Fri­day to tes­tify in pub­lic to the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee af­ter theMe­mo­ri­alDay hol­i­day, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from the com­mit­tee. He has told as­so­ciates that he kept de­tailed memos of his con­ver­sa­tions with Trump, in­clud­ing one in which he said the pres­i­dent told him to “let go” of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Three other con­gres­sional pan­els — the House In­tel­li­genceCom­mit­tee, the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee and the House Over­sight Com­mit­tee— are con­duct­ing sep­a­rate in­quiries. For­mer CIA Di­rec­tor John Bren­nan is sched­uled to tes­tify Tues­day to the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

The lat­est two ac­counts were first re­ported by the Wash­ing­ton Post and the NewYork Times.

The tim­ing un­der­scored that Trump will get no respite from the grow­ing swirl of scan­dals he faces in Wash­ing­ton even as he meets dozens of heads of state in elab­o­rate cer­e­monies and at­tends high-pow­ered sum­mits abroad.

Trump has re­peat­edly vented his frus­tra­tion with the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion, de­nounc­ing it on Twit­ter this week as “the sin­gle great­est witch hunt of a politi­cian in Amer­i­can his­tory!”

The in­ves­ti­ga­tions are cre­at­ing more po­lit­i­cal hur­dles for Repub­li­can law­mak­ers, who fear the Trump tu­mult will tor­pedo their leg­isla­tive agenda.

The Wash­ing­ton Post story did not iden­ti­fy­whoin the White House the FBI now con­sid­ers a per­son of in­ter­est, al­though it said the in­di­vid­ual is “some­one close to the pres­i­dent.”

In a state­ment, White House Press Sec­re­tary Sean Spicer did not con­firm or deny that a White House aide had been caught up in the FBI in­quiry.

“As the pres­i­dent has stated be­fore, a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion will con­firm that there was no col­lu­sion be­tween the cam­paign and any for­eign en­tity,” Spicer said.

The Jus­tice De­part­ment de­clined to com­ment. “As a mat­ter of pol­icy, we don’t com­ment on the ex­is­tence or nonex­is­tence of in­ves­ti­ga­tions or tar­gets of in­ves­ti­ga­tions,” said spokes­woman Sarah Is­gur Flores.

The New York Times cast a new light on Trump’s fir­ing of Comey last week, a dis­missal that sparked­po­lit­i­cal tur­moil when the White­House is­sued a se­ries of con­flict­ing rea­sons.

The Times has read what was de­scribed as the of­fi­cial WhiteHouse­mem­o­chron­i­cling Trump’s meet­ing with Rus­sia’s for­eign min­is­ter, Sergei Lavrov, and its am­bas­sador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in the Oval Of­fice on May 10, the day af­ter Comey­was fired.

“I just fired the head of the FBI. Hewas crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told them, ac­cord­ing to the Times. “I faced great pres­sure be­cause of Rus­sia. That’s taken off.”

That state­ment would ap­pear to con­sti­tute Trump’s most di­rect ad­mis­sion that he fired the FBI di­rec­tor in an at­tempt to af­fect the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The top Demo­crat on the House Over­sight Com­mit­tee, Rep. Eli­jah E. Cum­mings of Mary­land, called the re­ported con­ver­sa­tion “ex­tremely trou­bling.” He asked Chair­man Ja­son Chaf­fetz (R-Utah) to sub­poena the White House memo.

Some Repub­li­cans seemed equally as­ton­ished.

“As­sum­ing it’s in con­text and as­sum­ing it’s ac­cu­rate, it is a reck­less thing for a pres­i­dent to say, par­tic­u­larly to Rus­sian” of­fi­cials, said Ari Fleis­cher, who rou­tinely sat in on meet­ings with for­eign dig­ni­taries while serv­ing as Pres­i­dent Ge­orgeW. Bush’s press sec­re­tary.

“Did he re­ally think dis­miss­ing Comey would get rid of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion?” Fleis­cher asked. “One, it doesn’t work like that. And two, it would be more than reck­less if the pres­i­dent thought it worked like that, and that’s why he did it.”

In a state­ment Fri­day, Spicer did not deny the sub­stance of the New York Times story. In­stead, he sug­gested that Trump’s com­ment about eas­ing “great pres­sure” on him re­ferred to his abil­ity to im­prove re­la­tions with Rus­sia.

The White House ini­tially said Trump fired Comey be­cause of a rec­om­men­da­tion by Rod Rosen­stein, the deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral.

Trump later told NBC News that he would have fired Comey re­gard­less of a Jus­tice De­part­ment rec­om­men­da­tion and that he had the “Rus­sia thing” on his mind when hemade the de­ci­sion.

The de­vel­op­ments came as Rosen­stein spent his sec­ond con­sec­u­tive day on Capi­tol Hill de­liv­er­ing an ex­tra­or­di­nary brief­ing for all House mem­bers on his de­ci­sion to name a spe­cial coun­sel to take over the Rus­sia in­quiry.

Rosen­stein told law­mak­ers that he knew Trump wanted to fire Comey be­fore he wrote amem­oto the pres­i­dent out­lin­ing his own con­cerns over Comey’s per­for­mance. The White House ini­tially cited that memo as the rea­son Trump fired the FBI di­rec­tor.

“I wrote it. I be­lieve it. I stand by it,” Rosen­stein told law­mak­ers, ac­cord­ing to text of his open­ing state­ment re­leased pub­licly.

Rosen­stein also dis­puted re­ports that Comey had asked for more staff and fund­ing for the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “I am not aware of any such re­quest,” he said.

Trump

TRI­BUNE NEWS­PA­PERS/ FILE

James Comey, with Robert Mueller, right, agreed to tes­tify in pub­lic to the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

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