Trump de­nies ask­ing Comey to back off

NO RE­QUEST ON FLYNN PROBE, HE IN­SISTS Rosen­stein coun­ters White House ac­count of fir­ing

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY SARI HOR­WITZ, ASH­LEY PARKER AND ED O’KEEFE

Pres­i­dent Trump on Thurs­day said there was no col­lu­sion be­tween his cam­paign and Rus­sia, while adding the caveat that he can only speak for him­self, and de­nied ever ask­ing FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey to back off on his agency’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into former na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn.

Trump spoke in the wake of Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod J. Rosen­stein’s de­ci­sion to ap­point a spe­cial coun­sel to in­ves­ti­gate any co­or­di­na­tion be­tween Trump as­so­ci­ates and Rus­sian of­fi­cials.

“I re­spect the move, but the en­tire thing has been a witch hunt, and there is no col­lu­sion be­tween — cer­tainly my­self and my cam­paign, but I can only speak for my­self and the Rus­sians. Zero,” Trump said at a joint news con­fer­ence Thurs­day af­ter­noon with Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos of Colom­bia. “Be­lieve me, there’s no col­lu­sion.”

Asked whether he urged Comey to drop the Flynn in­ves­ti­ga­tion — as the fired FBI chief said he did in notes writ­ten af­ter a meet­ing with the pres­i­dent — Trump said, “No, no,” be­fore or­der­ing the me­dia to move on to the “next ques­tion.”

Also Thurs­day af­ter­noon, Rosen­stein went to Capi­tol Hill

and in­di­cated to the full Se­nate that the White House’s ini­tial ac­count of Comey’s fir­ing was not ac­cu­rate be­cause he said he knew that Comey would be fired be­fore he wrote a con­tro­ver­sial memo that the White House ini­tially used as its jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the dis­missal.

Rosen­stein did not re­veal any more sig­nif­i­cant de­tails about the Comey fir­ing, his de­ci­sion to ap­point a spe­cial coun­sel or the on­go­ing Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion dur­ing the un­usual 90-minute closed brief­ing with most of the 100 sen­a­tors, ac­cord­ing to in­ter­views with sev­eral sen­a­tors af­ter­ward.

Rosen­stein did, how­ever, em­pha­size to the sen­a­tors the in­de­pen­dent au­thor­ity that the new spe­cial coun­sel — former FBI di­rec­tor and fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor Robert S. Mueller III — has in the Rus­sian in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“If one thing is clear from the meet­ing we just had, it is that Mr. Mueller has broad and wide-rang­ing au­thor­ity to fol­low the facts wher­ever they go,” said Se­nate Mi­nor­ity Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “That gives me con­fi­dence and should give the Amer­i­can peo­ple some con­fi­dence.”

Although the meet­ing was held in a se­cure room in the Capi­tol Vis­i­tors Cen­ter where clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion can be dis­cussed, noth­ing Rosen­stein shared with the sen­a­tors was “re­motely clas­si­fied,” ac­cord­ing to one se­na­tor who asked for anonymity to speak frankly about the meet­ing.

“He could have shared what he told us in a pub­lic hear­ing,” the se­na­tor said.

Be­cause of Mueller’s wide scope in the Rus­sian probe, Rosen­stein re­ferred sev­eral of the sen­a­tors’ ques­tions to the new spe­cial coun­sel, frus­trat­ing many of the sen­a­tors who wanted to learn more.

Rosen­stein “was very care­ful about not go­ing into any de­tails sur­round­ing the re­moval be­cause he wants to give Robert Mueller the op­por­tu­nity to make an in­de­pen­dent de­ci­sion” about how to pro­ceed, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said as she emerged from the brief­ing.

Rosen­stein re­ceived strong sup­port from the Se­nate a month ago when he was con­firmed by a vote of 94 to 6 to be the Jus­tice De­part­ment’s sec­ond-high­es­trank­ing of­fi­cial. But his rep­u­ta­tion has come un­der fierce at­tack in the past week over the memo he wrote about Comey.

Since Comey’s fir­ing May 9, the calls for Rosen­stein to ap­point a spe­cial coun­sel in­ten­si­fied, es­pe­cially from Demo­cratic law­mak­ers who said he could no longer be im­par­tial in the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Rosen­stein had been put in charge of the probe as soon as he was con­firmed be­cause At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions re­cused him­self af­ter The Wash­ing­ton Post re­ported on con­tacts he had with the Rus­sian am­bas­sador that he had not dis­closed when asked about them dur­ing his Se­nate con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing.

Rosen­stein did not no­tify White House coun­sel Don­ald Mc- Gahn of his spe­cial coun­sel de­ci­sion un­til 5:30 p.m., the same time Jus­tice De­part­ment of­fi­cials were brief­ing re­porters and 30 min­utes be­fore the news be­came pub­lic. Se­nior con­gres­sional aides said that some law­mak­ers were also given a heads-up in ad­vance of the White House.

In the Se­nate meet­ing, each se­na­tor was given the op­por­tu­nity to ask one ques­tion. Sev­eral Democrats asked mul­ti­ple ques­tions, and some Repub­li­cans took a pass.

Rosen­stein told the sen­a­tors that, in fact, Trump had de­cided to fire Comey the day be­fore he wrote his memo.

“To me, it was sig­nif­i­cant that he stated that he knew that the de­ci­sion to fire Comey had been made the day be­fore he drafted the memo,” said Sen. An­gus King (I-Maine).

Why Rosen­stein felt com­pelled to write the memo re­mains un­known. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said that Rosen­stein told the sen­a­tors that he was not pres­sured into writ­ing it.

“He learned the pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion to fire him and then he wrote his memo with his ra­tio­nale,” Durbin said.

Ac­cord­ing to a per­son close to the White House, Rosen­stein was up­set about the nar­ra­tive that emerged from the White House on the evening of May 9. White House of­fi­cials cast Rosen­stein as the prime per­son be­hind the de­ci­sion to fire Comey, even though Trump had al­ready de­cided to ter­mi­nate the di­rec­tor. Rosen­stein threat­ened to re­sign from the Jus­tice De­part­ment be­cause of the ex­pla­na­tion that White House of­fi­cials were giv­ing re­porters about the fir­ing, said a per­son close to the White House, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

By May 10, White House of­fi­cials had backed off blam­ing Rosen­stein for the fir­ing, and the next day, Trump con­tra­dicted his own of­fi­cials and told NBC News that the de­ci­sion to fire Comey was his alone and that he was think­ing of “this Rus­sia thing with Trump” when he made it.

Dur­ing Thurs­day’s news con­fer­ence, Trump con­tra­dicted both his own ac­count and that of Rosen­stein. “Di­rec­tor Comey was very un­pop­u­lar with most peo­ple,” Trump said. “I also got a very, very strong rec­om­men­da­tion, as you know, from the deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral, Rod J. Rosen­stein.”

The pres­i­dent also ex­pressed sur­prise that he had not re­ceived bi­par­ti­san sup­port for his de­ci­sion to fire Comey. He called the sug­ges­tion he had done any­thing po­ten­tially wor­thy of crim­i­nal charges “to­tally ridicu­lous.”

Trump had ear­lier in the morn­ing lashed out on Twit­ter at the news of the spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor, call­ing the move a po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated “witch hunt” by his Demo­cratic ri­vals. The pres­i­dent’s anger con­trasted with a more mea­sured writ­ten state­ment re­leased by the White House on Wed­nes­day evening, when Trump de­clared that a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion would find “no col­lu­sion be­tween my cam­paign and any for­eign en­tity.”

Sev­eral Repub­li­can sen­a­tors asked Rosen­stein whether the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee could con­tinue its own in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion now that Mueller has been ap­pointed spe­cial coun­sel on the same mat­ter. Rosen­stein was “un­equiv­o­cal” that the panel can and should con­tinue its in­ves­ti­ga­tion, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with his re­marks.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who just re­moved him­self from con­sid­er­a­tion to be the next FBI di­rec­tor, said that sen­a­tors are tak­ing the fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion “enor­mously se­ri­ously.”

“Clearly Rus­sia was very much in­volved in try­ing to un­der­mine pub­lic con­fi­dence in our elec­tions,” Cornyn said. “I don’t think it’s in any­body’s in­ter­ested to de­lay or im­pede or im­pair this in­ves­ti­ga­tion in any way. We need to be fo­cused on what our role is. We are not the FBI or the De­part­ment of Jus­tice. We are con­duct­ing over­sight.”

Rosen­stein did find time for some lev­ity.

“Some­body asked, how do you pro­nounce your last name? He said it’s Rosen-STINE,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said, adding that Rosen­stein re­ferred sen­a­tors to a re­cent NPR seg­ment that taught lis­ten­ers how to prop­erly pro­nounce his name.

JABIN BOTSFORD/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Pres­i­dent Trump on Thurs­day ex­pressed sur­prise that he did not re­ceive bi­par­ti­san sup­port for his de­ci­sion to fire FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey and char­ac­ter­ized the idea that he had done any­thing po­ten­tially wor­thy of crim­i­nal charges as “to­tally ridicu­lous.”

T.J. KIRK­PATRICK/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Rod J. Rosen­stein, cen­ter, ar­rives Thurs­day for a pri­vate meet­ing with the Se­nate on the Rus­sian in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

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