President Donald Trump denied on Thursday that he colluded with Russia during the 2016 election, in his strongest denouncement yet of the topic that has hounded his presidency.
“There’s no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians,” Trump said in an interview with NBC News anchor Lester Holt.
The interview was Trump’s first since he unexpectedly fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday, a move whose timing has led lawmakers to question whether Trump is trying to impede the FBI’s ongoing investigation into his campaign’s possible ties to Russia.
But Trump rejected the investigation as nothing more than “an excuse by the Democrats” for losing the election, and insisted it had no bearing on his decision to fire Comey.
“When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won,” Trump said.
Moments later, however, Trump said he wanted the investigation “done properly,” and that Comey was “the wrong man” to do it.
“I might even lengthen out the investigation,” he said. “But I have to do the right thing for the American people. He’s the wrong man for the position.”
In a letter sent Tuesday, Trump said he was firing Comey based on recommendations from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. But he reversed his account on Thursday, saying that “regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.”
Reports emerged on Wednesday that Rosenstein threatened to resign after the White House painted him as the architect of Comey’s dismissal, although Rosenstein denied the reports on Thursday.
Trump also elaborated on what he said were three instances in which Comey personally told him that he was not under investigation. Two of the instances occurred over the phone, Trump said, and one happened during a private dinner with Comey at the White House.
“I said, ‘If it’s possible, will you let me know, am I under investigation?'” Trump told Holt. “He said, ‘You are not under investigation.'”
Trump also defended his decision to wait so long to fire former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump waited 18 days to fire Flynn after being warned by then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates that the retired general was susceptible to Russian blackmail.
But in a telling moment, Trump shifted the blame to his counsel Donald McGahn.
“My White House Counsel Don McGahn came back to me and it did not sound like an emergency,” Trump said. “He didn’t make it sound like… it had to be done immediately.”
He then contrasted Flynn and Yates: “This man has served for many years, he’s a general, in my opinion a very good person. I believe that it would be very unfair to hear from somebody who we don’t even know and immediately run out and fire a general.”
Watch part of the interview here »
More from Mark Abadi:
- Trump emphatically denies collusion with Russia in first interview since firing FBI director
- Trump describes the 3 times he says James Comey told him he wasn’t under investigation
- Here’s the farewell letter James Comey just sent his former FBI colleagues
- CNN: The FBI’s Russia investigation is ‘accelerating,’ and it cost Comey his job
- Everyone’s comparing Trump to Richard Nixon and the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ — here’s what happened then
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