Trump avoids a di­rect re­ply to ques­tion on Rus­sia

The Charlotte Observer - - Front Page - BY DARLENE SUPERVILLE AND JONATHAN LEMIRE As­so­ci­ated Press

It wasn’t the week­end that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump wanted: largely alone at the White House, irked by a pair of star­tling Rus­sia head­lines and baf­fled that he’s not get­ting more credit for stay­ing put dur­ing the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down.

Trump sur­prised his aides by de­cid­ing, with just a few hours’ no­tice, to call in to Jea­nine Pirro’s show on Fox News on Satur­day night to push back against cov­er­age of his pres­i­dency on mul­ti­ple fronts, par­tic­u­larly pub­lished re­ports about his ap­proach to­ward Rus­sia.

Even then, the pres­i­dent avoided di­rectly an­swer­ing when Pirro asked whether he cur­rently is or has ever worked for Rus­sia. The ques­tion came af­ter The New York Times re­ported that law en­force­ment of­fi­cials be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing, in 2017, whether Trump had been work­ing on be­half of Rus­sia against U.S. in­ter­ests. The news­pa­per said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion came af­ter the pres­i­dent’s fir­ing of FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey.

“I think it’s the most in­sult­ing thing I’ve ever been asked,” Trump told Pirro, a per­sonal friend. “I think it’s the most in­sult­ing ar­ti­cle I’ve ever had writ­ten, and if you read the ar­ti­cle you’ll see that they found ab­so­lutely noth­ing.”

Trump went on to as­sert that no pres­i­dent has taken a harder stance against Rus­sia than he has.

“If you ask the folks in Rus­sia, I’ve been tougher on Rus­sia than any­body else, any other … prob­a­bly any other pres­i­dent,

pe­riod, but cer­tainly the last three or four pres­i­dents,” he said.

White House aides ex­pressed re­gret that the pres­i­dent did not more clearly and force­fully deny be­ing a Rus­sian agent when asked by the usu­ally friendly Fox News host, ac­cord­ing to three White House aides and Repub­li­cans close to the White House. The three spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they were not au­tho­rized to dis­cuss pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions.

Trump also ob­jected to a re­port in The Washington Post that said he went to ex­tra­or­di­nary lengths to con­ceal de­tails of his con­ver­sa­tions with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin even from high-rank­ing of­fi­cials in his own ad­min­is­tra­tion. The re­port cited un­named cur­rent and for­mer U.S. of­fi­cials.

In the Fox News in­ter­view, Trump ques­tioned why the news­pa­per made such a “big deal” out of his dis­cus­sions with Putin in Helsinki last sum­mer. “Any­body could have lis­tened to that meet­ing, that meet­ing is up for grabs.”

The Rus­sia re­ports came as Trump plays up his pres­ence at the White House dur­ing the stand­off with Democrats over fund­ing for his long-promised wall at the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der. Large swaths of the gov­ern­ment have been shut down for weeks while Trump and Democrats in Congress re­main at an im­passe over money for the bor­der wall.

Trump has been try­ing to play up his pres­ence at the White House dur­ing the stand­off as a sign that it’s Democrats who won’t ne­go­ti­ate a deal.

“I like the sym­bol of me be­ing here,” Trump told Pirro. “I like that sym­bol be­cause I am ready to sign. And they’re not. And they’re not.”

Trump has ex­pressed baf­fle­ment that he is not get­ting more credit for largely stay­ing put dur­ing the shut­down. Aides ac­knowl­edge that the West Wing mis­han­dled the first few days of the shut­down, when Trump re­mained out of sight, and are now try­ing to use the trap­pings of his of­fice, with an Oval Of­fice speech, a visit to the Texas bor­der and the pres­i­dent’s fre­quent tweets about wait­ing in the White House for Democrats to act.

By Sun­day night, a blan­ket of snow in Washington seemed to pro­vide a calm­ing back­drop for the dis­con­tented pres­i­dent. He tweeted: “Wish I could share with ev­ery­one the beauty and majesty of be­ing in the White House and look­ing out­side at the snow filled lawns and Rose Gar­den. Re­ally is some­thing - SPE­CIAL COUN­TRY, SPE­CIAL PLACE!”

Trump’s claim that he’s been tough on Rus­sia was dis­puted Sun­day by Vir­ginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Demo­crat on the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee. The sen­a­tor said al­most all the sanc­tions on Rus­sia arose not in the White House but in Congress, due to con­cerns by mem­bers of both par­ties about Moscow’s ac­tions. Warner ac­cused the White House of be­ing very slow to put in place the penal­ties.

The Times re­ported that FBI agents and some top of­fi­cials be­came sus­pi­cious of Trump’s ties to Rus­sia dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign but didn’t open an in­ves­ti­ga­tion at that time be­cause they weren’t sure how to ap­proach such a sen­si­tive probe.

Trump’s be­hav­ior in the days around Comey’s May 2017 fir­ing helped trig­ger the coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence part of the probe, ac­cord­ing to the news­pa­per.

In the in­quiry, coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tors sought to eval­u­ate whether Trump was a po­ten­tial threat to na­tional se­cu­rity. They also sought to de­ter­mine whether Trump was de­lib­er­ately work­ing for Rus­sia or had un­in­ten­tion­ally been in­flu­enced by Moscow.

Trump tweeted early Satur­day that the re­port showed that the FBI lead­er­ship “opened up an in­ves­ti­ga­tion on me, for no rea­son & with no proof” af­ter he had fired Comey.

Robert Mueller took over the in­ves­ti­ga­tion when he was ap­pointed spe­cial coun­sel soon af­ter Comey’s fir­ing. The over­all in­ves­ti­ga­tion is look­ing into Rus­sian elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence and whether Trump’s cam­paign co­or­di­nated with the Rus­sians, as well as pos­si­ble ob­struc­tion of jus­tice by Trump. The Times says it’s un­clear whether Mueller is still pur­su­ing the coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence an­gle.

Trump lawyer Rudy Gi­u­liani told the Times he had no knowl­edge of the coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­quiry but said that since it was opened a year and a half ago and they hadn’t heard any­thing, ap­par­ently “they found noth­ing.”

SARAH SILBIGER NYT

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