Trump Embarks On First Overseas Trip Without Naming New FBI Director

May 19, 2017
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President Trump left Washington today for a nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe, but he can't escape the controversy surrounding his firing of FBI director James Comey. The New York Times reports this evening that Trump told Russian diplomats he had relieved great pressure on himself by firing Comey.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now from the White House. And Scott, the president reportedly made these comments in his meeting last week with Russia's foreign minister and ambassador. What more do we know?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Trump held that meeting with foreign minister Sergey Lavrov just one day after he had abruptly fired Jim Comey. And The New York Times says notes of that meeting which were circulated within the White House and read to the newspaper quote the president as telling Lavrov, "I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job." Now, NPR has not independently confirmed this account, but the president reportedly went on to say, I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off.

And of course Comey had been leading the FBI's investigation into Russian meddling in last year's election and possible ties to the Trump campaign. Just over a week after Comey was fired, the Justice Department named former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee that investigation.

CORNISH: Now, to go back to the initial firing, the White House had said that President Trump fired Comey because of his handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe. And then later in an interview, Trump himself acknowledged - said that the Russian investigation was on his mind when he made the decision. So what's the White House reaction to the latest revelation today from The New York Times?

HORSLEY: The administration put out a statement from Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and it doesn't dispute the substance of The Times' account. Spicer says, quote, "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 notes that Trump has always stressed the importance of negotiating with Russia as a way to get that country's help in battling ISIS or dealing with Syria, for example. Spicer also says the investigation would have always continued, and obviously the termination of Comey would not have ended it. And once again, the press secretary tries to shift attention away from the president's conduct and onto unauthorized leakers who are sharing this kind of information with the news media.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, we mentioned the president leaving for his trip today. He did so without picking a replacement for Comey, right? He told reporters last weekend he thought he might be able to fill the job of FBI director before he went on this trip. So what's the holdup?

HORSLEY: One of the people who has been under consideration for the FBI job is former Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. Lieberman spent most of his career as a Democrat, and there are some who thought that nominating Lieberman might win bipartisan support. A lot of Democrats, however, are pouring cold water on that idea. Take a listen to Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill.

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CLAIRE MCCASKILL: I think it's a mistake to nominate anyone who's ever run for office. I'm somebody who spent a lot of time in law enforcement. This is a moment where we need a law enforcement professional that's never campaigned for a presidential candidate, never campaigned for office, never worn a party label to head the FBI.

HORSLEY: Now, Lieberman left the Democratic Party back in 2006 after he was challenged on the left for supporting the Iraq War. He later campaigned with Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, and a lot of Democrats are still smarting about that. Critics also note that Lieberman does not have any federal law enforcement experience, and he's 75 years old, which is kind of late in life to take on a 10-year term as FBI director.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House. Scott, thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.