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 emerged just as Trump was taking off on his first official trip overseas, a nine-day visit to five countries in the Middle East and Europe.
Until now, the 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 federal criminal charges are imminent, or even likely, for one of Trump’s aides. But it does suggest the probe has moved into a new phase, one potentially far more damaging for the president since it now appears in his direct orbit.
The investigation has appeared to accelerate sharply in recent weeks. A federal grand jury in Virginia has issued subpoenas, and on Wednesday, the Justice Department formally handed off the probe to a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller III, to ensure its independence.
Four congressional committees — the House and Senate intelligence committees, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight Committee — are conducting separate inquiries.
The latest two damaging accounts appeared in the Washington Post and the New York 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 been frustrated with the FBI investigation, and has called himself a victim of a witch hunt. But the investigations seemed to only be growing larger.
The Washington Post story did not identify who in 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 responding to the story, White House press secretary Sean Spicer did not confirm or deny that someone in the White House was under investigation.
“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.
A separate article in the New York Times cast a new light on Trump’s firing of Comey last week, following a series of sometimes conflicting reasons given by the White House.
The Times was read a memo chronicling Trump’s meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador to Washington in the Oval Office on May 10, the day after Comey was fired.
“I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was 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 constitute the most direct admission by Trump that he had fired Comey in an attempt to impact the investigation.
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 Rosenstein’s recommendation and that he had the “Russia thing” on his mind when he made the decision.
Trump has said repeatedly that he is not personally under investigation. He repeated that during a brief news conference Thursday but left some room for other members of his administration.
“There’s no collusion between, certainly, myself and my campaign — but I can always speak for myself — and the Russians — zero,” he said. He appeared to mean that he could “only” speak for himself.
Spicer released a separate statement Friday responding to the Times story regarding the White House conversation with Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, and Ambassador to the United States, Sergey I. Kislyak.
That statement also did not deny the substance of the story. Instead, it defined Trump’s comments to mean that removing Comey would take pressure off of Trump’s relationship with Russia.
“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,” Spicer said.
“By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia. 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.”
Whatever Trump’s intentions, firing Comey did not end the investigation. Instead, it intensified pressure on the Justice Department. With question’s about the department’s independence growing, Rosenstein appointed former FBI chief Robert Mueller III as a special counsel to lead the Russia investigation on Wednesday.