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Jeff Sessions recusing himself from Russia probe was ‘very unfair to the president’: Trump

By Peter Baker, Michael S. Schmidt And Maggie Haberman

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he never would have appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions had he known Sessions would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation that has dogged his presidency, calling the decision “very unfair to the president.”

In a remarkable public break with one of his earliest political supporters, Trump complained that Sessions’ decision ultimately led to the appointment of a special counsel that should not have happened. “Sessions should have never recused himself 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,” Trump said.

In a wide-ranging interview with The New York Times, the president also accused James Comey, the FBI director he fired in May, of trying to leverage a dossier of compromising material to keep his job. Trump criticized both the acting FBI director who has been filling in since Comey’s dismissal and the deputy attorney general who recommended it. And he took on Robert Mueller, the special counsel now leading the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election.

Trump said Mueller was running an office rife with conflicts of interest and warned investigators against delving into matters too far afield from Russia. Trump never said he would order the Justice Department to fire Mueller, nor would he outline circumstances under which he might do so. But he left open the possibility as he expressed deep grievance over an investigation that has taken a political toll in the six months since he took office.

Asked if Mueller’s investigation would cross a red line if it expanded to look at his family’s finances beyond any relationship to Russia, Trump said, “I would say yes.” He would not say what he would do about it. “I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia.”

While the interview touched on an array of issues, including health care, foreign affairs and politics, the investigation dominated the conversation. He said that as far as he knew, he was not under investigation himself, despite reports that Mueller is looking at whether the president obstructed justice by firing Comey.

“I don’t think we’re under investigation,” he said. “I’m not under investigation. For what? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Describing a newly disclosed informal conversation he had with President Vladimir Putin of Russia during a dinner of world leaders in Germany this month, Trump said they talked for about 15 minutes, mostly about “pleasantries.” But Trump did say that they talked “about adoptions.” Putin banned American adoptions of Russian children in 2012 after the U.S. enacted sanctions on Russians accused of human rights abuses, an issue that remains a sore point in relations with Moscow.

Trump acknowledged that it was “interesting” that adoptions came up since his son, Donald Trump Jr., said that was the topic of a meeting he had with several Russians with ties to the Kremlin during last year’s campaign. Even though emails show that the session had been set up to pass along incriminating information about Hillary Clinton, the president said he did not need such material from Russia about Clinton last year because he already had more than enough.

The interview came as the White House was trying to move beyond the Russia story and regain momentum after the collapse of health care legislation in the Senate. Relaxed and engaged, the president sat at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, with only one aide, Hope Hicks, sitting in on the interview. The session was sandwiched between a White House lunch with Republican senators and an event promoting “Made in America” week.

Over the course of 50 minutes, the often-fiery Trump demonstrated his more amiable side, joking about holding hands with the president of France and musing about having a military parade down a main avenue in Washington. He took satisfaction that unemployment has fallen and stock markets have risen to record highs on his watch.

At one point, his daughter, Ivanka, arrived at the doorway with her daughter Arabella, who ran to her grandfather and gave him a kiss. He greeted the 6-year-old girl as “baby,” then urged her to show the reporters her ability to speak Chinese. She obliged.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

But Trump left little doubt during the interview that the Russia investigation remained a sore point.

Trump’s pique at Sessions seemed fresh even months after the attorney general’s recusal. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump’s candidacy and was rewarded with a key Cabinet slot, but has been more distant from the president lately.

“Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the president,” he added. “How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president.”

Trump also faulted Sessions for his testimony during Senate confirmation hearings when Sessions said he had not met with any Russians even though he had met at least twice with Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak. “Jeff Sessions gave some bad answers,” the president said. “He gave some answers that were simple questions and should have been simple answers, but they weren’t.”

A spokesman for Sessions declined to comment Wednesday.

The president added a new allegation against Comey, whose dismissal has become a central issue for critics who said it amounted to an attempt to obstruct the investigation into Russian meddling in the election and any possible collusion with Trump’s team.

Trump recalled that a little more than two weeks before his inauguration, Comey and other intelligence officials briefed him at Trump Tower on Russian meddling. Comey afterward pulled Trump aside and told him about a dossier that had been assembled by a former British spy filled with salacious allegations against the incoming president, including supposed sexual escapades in Moscow. The FBI has not corroborated the most sensational assertions in the dossier.

In the interview, Trump said he believes Comey told him about the dossier to implicitly make clear he had something to hold over the president. “In my opinion, he shared it so that I would think he had it out there,” Trump said. As leverage? “Yeah, I think so,’’ Trump said. “In retrospect.”

The president dismissed the assertions in the dossier: “When he brought it to me, 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.”

Comey declined to comment Wednesday.

But Comey and other intelligence officials decided it was best for him to raise the subject with Trump alone because he was going to remain as FBI director. Comey testified before Congress that he disclosed the details of the dossier to Trump because he thought that the media would soon be publishing details from it and that Trump had a right to know what information was out there about him.

Trump rebutted Comey’s claim that in a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, the president asked him to end the investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn. Comey testified before Congress that Trump kicked the vice president, attorney general and several other senior administration officials out of the room before having the discussion with Comey.

“I don’t remember even talking to him about any of this stuff,” Trump said. “He said I asked people to go. Look, you look at his testimony. His testimony is loaded up with lies, OK.?”

Trump was also critical of Mueller, a longtime former FBI director, reprising some of his past complaints that lawyers in his office contributed money to Clinton’s campaign. He noted that he actually interviewed Mueller to replace Comey just before his appointment as special counsel.

“He was up here and he wanted the job,” Trump said. After he was named special counsel, “I said, ‘What the hell is this all about?’ Talk about conflicts. But he was interviewing for the job. There were many other conflicts that I haven’t said, but I will at some point.”

The president also expressed discontent with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a former federal prosecutor from Baltimore. When Sessions recused himself, the president said he was irritated to learn where his deputy was from. “There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any,” he said of the predominantly Democratic city.

He complained that Rosenstein had in effect been on both sides when it came to Comey. The deputy attorney general recommended Comey be fired but then appointed Mueller, who may be investigating whether the dismissal was an obstruction of justice. “Well, that’s a conflict of interest,” Trump said. “Do you know how many conflicts of interests there are?”

Former FBI Director James Comey during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on June 8, 2017.

As for Andrew McCabe, the acting FBI director, the president suggested that he too had a conflict. McCabe’s wife, Jill McCabe, received nearly $500,000 in 2015 during a losing campaign for the Virginia Senate from a political action committee affiliated with Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is close friends with Hillary and Bill Clinton.

In his first description of his dinnertime conversation with Putin at the Group of 20 summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany, Trump played down its significance. He said his wife, Melania, was seated next to Putin at the other end of a table filled with world leaders.

“The meal was going toward dessert,’’ he said. “I went down just to say hello to Melania, and while I was there I said hello to Putin. Really, pleasantries more than anything else. It was not a long conversation, but it was, you know, could be 15 minutes. Just talked about things. Actually, it was very interesting, we talked about adoption.”

He noted the adoption issue came up in the June 2016 meeting between his son and Russian visitors. “I actually talked about Russian adoption with him,’’ he said, meaning Putin. “Which is interesting because it was a part of the conversation that Don had in that meeting.”

But the president repeated that he did not know about his son’s meeting at the time and added that he did not need the Russians to provide damaging information about Clinton.

“There wasn’t much I could say about Hillary Clinton that was worse than what I was already saying,” he said. “Unless somebody said that she shot somebody in the back, there wasn’t much I could add to my repertoire.”

EXCERPTS FROM THE TRUMP INTERVIEW:

The following are excerpts from that conversation, transcribed by The Times. It has been lightly edited for content and clarity, and omits several off-the-record comments and asides. Additional excerpts will be added as they are compiled.

TRUMP: Look, [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions gets the job. Right after he gets the job, he recuses himself.

BAKER: Was that a mistake?

TRUMP: Well, Sessions should have never recused himself, 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.

HABERMAN: He gave you no heads up at all, in any sense?

TRUMP: Zero. So Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have — which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, “Thanks, Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.” It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president. So he recuses himself. I then end up with a second man, who’s a deputy.

HABERMAN: [Rod] Rosenstein.

TRUMP: Who is he? And Jeff hardly knew. He’s from Baltimore.

TRUMP: Yeah, what Jeff Sessions did was he recused himself right after, right after he became attorney general. And I said, “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” I would have — then I said, “Who’s your deputy?” So his deputy he hardly knew, and that’s Rosenstein, Rod Rosenstein, who is from Baltimore. There are very few Republicans in Baltimore, if any. So, he’s from Baltimore. Now, he, we went through a lot of things. We were interviewing replacements at the FBI. Did you know [Robert] Mueller was one of the people that was being interviewed?

HABERMAN: I did, actually.

TRUMP: He was sitting in that chair. We had a wonderful meeting.

HABERMAN: Day before, right?

SCHMIDT: Did he want the job?

TRUMP: The day before! Of course, he was up here, and he wanted the job.

HABERMAN: And he made that clear to you? He would have——

TRUMP: So, now what happens is, he leaves the office. Rosenstein leaves the office. The next day, he is appointed special counsel. I said, what the hell is this all about? Talk about conflicts? But he was interviewing for the job. There were many other conflicts that I haven’t said, but I will at some point. So Jeff Sessions, Jeff Sessions gave some bad answers.

HABERMAN: You mean at the hearing?

TRUMP: Yeah, he gave some answers that were simple questions and should have been simple answers, but they weren’t. He then becomes attorney general, and he then announces he’s going to recuse himself. Why wouldn’t he have told me that before?

HABERMAN: Why do you think it was? What do you think it was?

TRUMP: I don’t know.

BAKER: What would cause you — what would be the line beyond which if Mueller went, you would say, “That’s too far, we would need to dismiss him”?

TRUMP: Look, there are so many conflicts that everybody has. Then Rosenstein becomes extremely angry because of [James ] Comey’s Wednesday press conference, where he said that he would do the same thing he did a year ago with Hillary Clinton, and Rosenstein became extremely angry at that because, as a prosecutor, he knows that Comey did the wrong thing. Totally wrong thing. And he gives me a letter, OK, he gives me a letter about Comey. And by the way, that was a tough letter, OK. Now, perhaps I would have fired Comey anyway, and it certainly didn’t hurt to have the letter, OK. But he gives me a very strong letter, and now he’s involved in the case. Well, that’s a conflict of interest. Do you know how many conflicts of interests there are? But then, then Comey also says that he did something in order to get the special prose— special counsel. He leaked. The reason he leaked. So, he illegally leaked.

TRUMP: So think of this, Mike. He illegally leaks, and everyone thinks it is illegal, and by the way, it looks like it’s classified and all that stuff. So he got — not a smart guy — he got tricked into that, because they didn’t even ask him that question. They asked him another question, OK?________

TRUMP: He said I said “hope” — “I hope you can treat Flynn good” or something like that. I didn’t say anything.

But even if he did — like I said at the news conference on the, you know, Rose Garden — even if I did, that’s not — other people go a step further. I could have ended that whole thing just by saying — they say it can’t be obstruction because you can say: “It’s ended. It’s over. Period.”

TRUMP: And nothing was changed other than Richard Nixon came along. And when Nixon came along [inaudible] was pretty brutal, and out of courtesy, the FBI started reporting to the Department of Justice. But there was nothing official, there was nothing from Congress. There was nothing — anything. But the FBI person really reports directly to the president of the United States, which is interesting. You know, which is interesting. And I think we’re going to have a great new FBI director.

HABERMAN: Chris Wray.

TRUMP: He’s highly thought of by everybody. I think I did the country a great service with respect to Comey.

BAKER: Did you shoo other people out of the room when you talked to Comey?

TRUMP: No, no.

BAKER: That time [inaudible] [Michael] Flynn —

TRUMP: No. That was the other thing. I told people to get out of the room. Why would I do that?

SCHMIDT: Did you actually have a one-on-one with Comey then?

TRUMP: Not much. Not even that I remember. He was sitting, and I don’t remember even talking to him about any of this stuff. He said I asked people to go. Look, you look at his testimony. His testimony is loaded up with lies, OK? But people didn’t — we had a couple people that said —

ARABELLA KUSHNER: [enters room] Hi, Grandpa.

TRUMP: My granddaughter Arabella, who speaks — say hello to them in Chinese.

KUSHNER: Ni hao.

[laughter]

TRUMP: This is Ivanka. You know Ivanka.

IVANKA TRUMP: [from doorway] Hi, how are you? See you later, just wanted to come say hi.

TRUMP: She’s great. She speaks fluent Chinese. She’s amazing.

BAKER: That’s very impressive.

TRUMP: She spoke with President Xi [Jinping of China]. Honey? Can you say a few words in Chinese? Say, like, “I love you, Grandpa” —

KUSHNER: Wo ai ni, Grandpa.

BAKER: That’s great.

TRUMP: She’s unbelievable, huh?

[crosstalk]

TRUMP: Good, smart genes.

[laughter]

TRUMP: So the bottom line is this. The country’s doing well. We are, we are moving forward with a lot of great things. The unemployment is the lowest it’s been in 16 years. The stock market is the highest it’s ever been. It’s up almost 20 percent since I took office. And we’re working hard on health care. Um, the Russian investigation — it’s not an investigation, it’s not on me — you know, they’re looking at a lot of things.

HABERMAN: It’s a broad —

TRUMP: They’re looking at a big picture.

BAKER: This is why I want to come back to that email, because, like — does it concern you? Let’s say that the election didn’t change because of anything Russia did, which has been your point, right? You point —

TRUMP: By the way, it’s everybody.

BAKER: Right, your point is that Democrats are trying to use this as an excuse, fine. But did that email concern you, that the Russian government was trying something to compromise——

TRUMP: You know, Peter, I didn’t look into it very closely, to be honest with you.

BAKER: OK.

TRUMP: I just heard there was an email requesting a meeting or something — yeah, requesting a meeting. That they have information on Hillary Clinton, and I said — I mean, this was standard political stuff.

SCHMIDT: Did you know at the time that they had the meeting?

TRUMP: No, I didn’t know anything about the meeting.

SCHMIDT: But you didn’t——

TRUMP: It must have been a very important — must have been a very unimportant meeting, because I never even heard about it.

HABERMAN: No one told you a word, nothing? I know we talked about this on the plane a little bit.

TRUMP: No, nobody told me. I didn’t know noth—— It’s a very unimportant — sounded like a very unimportant meeting.

BAKER: But on the date you clinched the nominations with New Jersey and California and the primaries, when you give the speech that night, saying you’re going to give a speech about Hillary Clinton’s corrupt dealings with Russia and other countries, and that comes just three hours after Don Jr. —

TRUMP: Number one, remember, I made many of those speeches.

BAKER: People wondered about the timing.

TRUMP: Many of those speeches. I’d go after her all the time.

BAKER: Yeah, I know, but——

TRUMP: But there was something about the book, “Clinton Cash,” came out.

BAKER: Yeah, a year earlier, though. But you were talking about——

TRUMP: But we were developing a whole thing. There was something about “Clinton Cash.”

TRUMP: Peter, that’s all I did, was make those speeches about her. … I don’t think I added anything much different than I had been doing. … I’ve made some very strong speeches about the corrupt emails. The 33,000 emails being deleted and bleached, and all of the things she was doing. I would make those speeches routinely. … There wasn’t much I could say about Hillary Clinton that was worse than what I was already saying.

HABERMAN: [laughs] I’m sorry.

TRUMP: I mean, I was talking about, she deleted and bleached, which nobody does because of the cost. How she got away with that one, I have no idea. 33,000 emails. I talked about the back of the plane, I talked about the uranium deal, I talked about the speech that Russia gave Clinton — $500,000 while she was secretary of state — the husband. I talked about the back of the plane — honestly, Peter, I mean, unless somebody said that she shot somebody in the back, there wasn’t much I could add to my repertoire.

HABERMAN: On Fifth Avenue——

TRUMP: I mean, look at what we have now. We have a director of the FBI, acting, who received $700,000, whose wife received $700,000 from, essentially, Hillary Clinton. ‘Cause it was through Terry. Which is Hillary Clinton.

HABERMAN: This is [Andrew] McCabe’s wife, you mean?

TRUMP: McCabe’s wife. She got $700,000, and he’s at the FBI. I mean, how do you think that? But when you say that — and think about this for a second. I don’t think — you could give me a whole string of new information. I don’t think I could really have — there’s only so much. You know, you can only say many things. After that it gets boring, OK? How can it be better than deleting emails after you get a subpoena from the United States Congress? Guys go to jail for that, when they delete an email from a civil case. Here, she gets an email from the United States Congress —

BAKER: Should she be prosecuted now?

TRUMP: What?

BAKER: Should she be prosecuted now? Why, then, should she not be prosecuted now——

TRUMP: I don’t want to say that. I mean, I don’t want to say.

SCHMIDT: Last thing.

TRUMP: You understand what I mean, Peter.

BAKER: I know.

TRUMP: I mean, supposing they were able to give me additional — it wouldn’t have helped me. I had so much stuff——

SCHMIDT: Last thing, if Mueller——

TRUMP: And I couldn’t have been better than the stuff I had. Obviously, because I won.

SCHMIDT: Last thing, if Mueller was looking at your finances and your family finances, unrelated to Russia — is that a red line?

HABERMAN: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?

TRUMP: I would say yeah. I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t — I don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia. In fact, I put out a letter saying that I don’t make — from one of the most highly respected law firms, accounting firms. I don’t have buildings in Russia. They said I own buildings in Russia. I don’t. They said I made money from Russia. I don’t. It’s not my thing. I don’t, I don’t do that. Over the years, I’ve looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one. Other than I held the Miss Universe pageant there eight, nine years [crosstalk].

SCHMIDT: But if he was outside that lane, would that mean he’d have to go?

[crosstalk]

HABERMAN: Would you consider——

TRUMP: No, I think that’s a violation. Look, this is about Russia. So I think if he wants to go, my finances are extremely good, my company is an unbelievably successful company. And actually, when I do my filings, peoples say, “Man.” People have no idea how successful this is. It’s a great company. But I don’t even think about the company anymore. I think about this. ‘Cause one thing, when you do this, companies seem very trivial. OK? I really mean that. They seem very trivial. But I have no income from Russia. I don’t do business with Russia. The gentleman that you mentioned, with his son, two nice people. But basically, they brought the Miss Universe pageant to Russia to open up, you know, one of their jobs. Perhaps the convention center where it was held. It was a nice evening, and I left. I left, you know, I left Moscow. It wasn’t Moscow, it was outside of Moscow.

HABERMAN: Would you fire Mueller if he went outside of certain parameters of what his charge is? [crosstalk]

SCHMIDT: What would you do?

[crosstalk]

TRUMP: I can’t, I can’t answer that question because I don’t think it’s going to happen.

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