U.S. President Donald Trump lambasted top officials involved in investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, and said he did not need Russia's help obtaining damaging information about his rival HIllary Clinton during the campaign.
Trump's comments in an interview with The New York Times published on July 19 came as the Senate Judiciary Committee announced that Trump's oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, have agreed to testify in public next week about a meeting they had in June 2016 with Russians including a lawyer who Trump Jr. was told had promised information damaging to Clinton.
Russian lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya, who sought the meeting held at Trump Tower in New York, provided the campaign with a portfolio that she said showed Russians had contributed illegally to the Democratic National Committee, another participant at the meeting told the AP.
Trump Jr., who released e-mails earlier this month showing he was eager to see what Veselnitskaya was offering on Clinton, said after the meeting was disclosed publicly for the first time last week that it yielded nothing of use to the campaign.
President Trump backed up his son's account in The New York Times interview, saying that he had not needed Russia's help digging up adverse information about Clinton because he already had more than enough.
“There wasn’t much I could say about Hillary Clinton that was worse than what I was already saying,” Trump told the Times. “Unless somebody said that she shot somebody in the back, there wasn’t much I could add to my repertoire.”
While the Trumps have dismissed the meeting as inconsequential, members of the Senate committee, which is investigating whether there was collusion between Russians and the Trump campaign, are demanding that the administration provide all documents related to the meeting such as the plastic folder on Clinton that some participants saw.
"There has been an enormous amount that has been said publicly but it's not under oath, which means that people are free to omit matters or lie with relative impunity," Senator Sheldon Whitehorse (Democrat-Rhode Island), who is on the committee, told CNN on July 19.
Veselnitskaya said she is ready to testify about the Trump Tower meeting, although she has not been scheduled as yet before any of several committees in Congress investigating the Russian matter.
"If the Senate wishes to hear the real story, I will be happy to speak up and share everything I wanted to tell Mr. Trump," she told Russia's state-funded RT television on July 18. "I am ready to clarify the situation behind the mass hysteria."
In the Times interview, Trump also spoke for the first time about a second conversation he had with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Group of 20 (G20) summit in Germany in early July, saying they discussed mostly "pleasantries" and the issue of Russian adoptions.
Putin barred Americans from adopting Russian children in 2012 after the United States enacted sanctions on Russians accused of human rights abuses, an issue that remains a sore point in relations with Moscow.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, supported Trump's account, saying on July 20 that the presidents did discuss adoptions. He declined to give details, but said that they did not talk about the possibility that the Russian ban could be lifted.
The revelation this week that Trump held a lengthy and previously undisclosed second conversation with Putin at the G20 summit on July 7 has raised eyebrows in the United States, particularly because there was no other U.S. official involved -- only a translator from the Russian side -- and there is no U.S. record of what was said.
Also during the 50-minute interview, Trump told The New York Times that he would have never appointed former Senator Jeff Sessions (Republican-Alabama) to be attorney general -- the chief U.S. prosecutor -- if he had known that Sessions would recuse himself from the Russia investigation shortly after taking office.
“Frankly, I think it's very unfair to the president,” Trump said. “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.'"
In a news conference on cybercrime later on July 20, Sessions, one of Trump’s earliest backers, told reporters that “I have the honor to serve as attorney general.... We love this job.... And I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate.”
“We’re serving right now. The work we’re doing today [on cybercrime] is the kind of work we intend to continue,” he said when asked how he could effectively serve if he did not have the confidence of the president.
Trump also criticized the special counsel conducting the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller, claiming that Mueller is running an office rife with conflicts of interest, and leveled a new accusation at former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired in May at a time when he was leading the Russia investigation.
Trump said Comey told him two weeks before he took office about a dossier assembled by a former British spy that was filled with salacious allegations against him, including supposed sexual escapades in Moscow.
Trump said he believes Comey told him about the dossier to make it clear he had something he could hold over the president as leverage. Comey has testified that he told Trump about the dossier because he believed Trump had a right to know about details some media outlets might soon be publishing.
With reporting by The New York Times, AP, AFP, and Reuters