Donald Trump went on the offensive on Saturday morning, after the Washington Post reported that his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, discussed Trump’s White House bid with the Russian ambassador to Washington in 2016.
The president did not defend Sessions, whom earlier this week he criticisedstrongly for his recusal from the Russia investigation. Instead, Trump complained about “illegal leaks” and demanded: “Why isn’t the AG or Special Council [sic] looking at the many Hillary Clinton or Comey crimes. 33,000 e-mails deleted?”
The Post report cited US intelligence intercepts which contradict Sessions’ assurances that the campaign was not discussed. Sergey Kislyak told his superiors in Moscow he talked about campaign-related matters and significant policy issues during two meetings with Sessions, according to current and former US intelligence officials, the Washington Post reported on Friday.
The ambassador’s accounts of the meetings, which US spy agencies intercepted, clash with those of Sessions and pile fresh pressure on the attorney general just days after the president publicly criticised him.
Trump has complained that Comey, whom he fired in May, has leakedconfidential information.
Trump also tweeted a complaint about the Post’s main rival:
On Friday, Gen Raymond Thomas, head of Special Operations Command, blameda “media leak” for one instance of Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, escaping capture or death.
Trump did not immediately follow up or expand his argument, instead tweetingabout a speaking engagement in Norfolk, Virginia. He then tweeted a reference to reports, met with horror among Democrats, that White House advisers were exploring the possibility of presidential pardons.
“While all agree the US President has the complete power to pardon,” Trump wrote, “why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us.FAKE NEWS.”
Sessions, formerly a senator from Alabama, was a senior foreign policy adviser to Trump during the presidential race. After being tapped to run the justice department, he first failed to disclose his encounters with Kislyak and then said the meetings were not about the Trump campaign.
The Post cited an unnamed US official who called Sessions’ statements “misleading” and “contradicted by other evidence”. An unnamed former official said the intelligence indicated Sessions and Kislyak had “substantive” discussions on matters including Trump’s positions on Russia-related issues and prospects for bilateral relations in a Trump administration, the paper reported.
The officials acknowledged that the ambassador could have mischaracterised the meetings in his briefings to Moscow.
The attorney general has repeatedly said he never discussed campaign-related issues with Russian officials and that it was in his capacity as a senator, not a Trump surrogate, that he met Kislyak. “I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign,” he said in March.
The apparent discrepancy with Kislyak’s version of events capped a torrid week for Sessions. Trump said in an interview published on Wednesday that he regretted appointing him after Sessions recused himself from investigations into links with the Trump campaign and Russia.
The president, marking six months in office, appeared to be venting concern that the investigation headed by special counsel Robert Mueller was reportedly expanding to include his business ties with Russia.
Sessions told reporters on Thursday that he would continue in his job “as long as that is appropriate”. He made no immediate response to the Post’s article on Friday.
However in a statement, a justice department spokeswoman told the paper: “Obviously I cannot comment on the reliability of what anonymous sources describe in a wholly uncorroborated intelligence intercept that the Washington Post has not seen and that has not been provided to me.”
In a separate development on Friday, the Senate judiciary committee said that next week it would interview the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, and his former campaign chief Paul Manafort behind closed doors rather than in public testimony, as originally planned.
Both men agreed agreed to negotiate to provide the committee with documents and be interviewed prior to a public hearing, the committee chairman, Chuck Grassley, and its ranking member, Dianne Feinstein, said in a statement. “Therefore, we will not issue subpoenas for them tonight requiring their presence at Wednesday’s hearing but reserve the right to do so in the future.”The report about the Russian ambassador capped another tumultuous day in Washington. Sean Spicer resigned as White House press secretary, ending a controversial tenure as the administration’s public face. He stepped down after the president tapped Anthony Scaramucci, a New York financier and longtime Trump supporter, as the new White House communications director.
In an interview with Sean Hannity broadcast on Fox News on Friday night, Spicer said he left on good terms with the president.
“I just thought it was in the best interest of our communications department, of our press organization to not have too many cooks in the kitchen … He wanted to bring some new folks in to help rev up the communications operation, and after reflection, my decision was to recommend to the president that I give Anthony and Sarah a clean slate to start from.”
Asked about the Saturday Night Live spoofs – Melissa McCarthy played him as a raging, foaming attack dog – Spicer replied: “I think that there were parts of it that were funny, but there’s a lot of it that was over the line. It wasn’t funny. It was stupid, or silly, or malicious.
“But there were some skits on late-night television that I did crack up at. So sometimes it can be funny. Some of the memes you have to crack up about. But sometimes it goes from funny to mean.”