President Donald Trump told a Russian official in the Oval Office that firing former FBI Director James Comey relieved "great pressure" Trump said he was facing "because of Russia," The New York Times reported Friday. The news marks the latest in a series of reasons the Trump administration has given for firing Comey. The White House is defending Trump's words and actions, claiming that letting Comey go was a negotiating tactic aimed at allowing the U.S. to better engage with Russia.
The Times based its article on a document that summarized the meeting between Trump, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. It took place the day after the Comey firing.
"I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job," Trump said, according to the Times report. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off."
Trump reportedly added, "I’m not under investigation." The FBI was looking into the Trump campaign's potential ties with Russia, which intelligence agencies concluded meddled in the 2016 election in an effort to get the Republican candidate elected. The statement from Trump seemed to suggest that the FBI investigation, at least in part, affected his decision to fire Comey.
The White House did not dispute the account of the meeting, according to the Times. Press Secretary Sean Spicer said to the newspaper that Comey had made it too difficult to engage with Russia on important issues such as the civil war in Syria and fighting the Islamic State group (ISIS).
"By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia's actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia," Spicer told the Times. "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."
In the same meeting, Trump reportedly revealed classified intelligence to the Russian officials.
Trump fired Comey last week after a recommendation from the Justice Department, which cited Comey's handling of an investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.
"I cannot defend the directors handling of the conclusion of the investigation of Secretary Clinton’s emails, and I do not understand his refusal to accept the nearly universal judgment that he was mistaken," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote.
Trump later told NBC News in an interview, "And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, '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.'"
The Justice Department this week appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to serve as special counsel investigating potential ties between Trump and Russia regarding the Kremlin's interference in the 2016 election.