Written by Peter Baker
President Donald Trump on Friday appeared to backtrack somewhat on accepting campaign help from Russia or other foreign governments without necessarily telling the FBI, saying he would certainly inform law enforcement authorities if he were approached.
Under fire for saying earlier in the week that “I’d take it” and scoffing at the notion that he should call authorities, Trump shifted by saying that while he would still look at incriminating information provided by a hostile foreign power about an election opponent he would “absolutely” report such an encounter.
“Of course, you give it to the FBI or report it to the attorney general or somebody like that,” Trump said on “Fox & Friends” in a telephone interview on Friday morning. “But of course you do that. You couldn’t have that happen with our country.”
He shot back angrily, however, at Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said Thursday that the president’s willingness to take foreign help to win an election demonstrated “that he does not know right from wrong” and that “he’s been involved in a criminal cover-up.”
Trump called that a “fascist statement,” citing a supporter. “When Nancy Pelosi makes a statement like that, she ought to be ashamed of herself,” he said. “It’s a disgrace.”
The president also pushed back against criticism on another front, rejecting a recommendation by an independent agency that he fire his counselor, Kellyanne Conway, for violating federal law governing partisan politics in government.
“No, I’m not going to fire” her, Trump said. “I think she’s a terrific person. She’s a tremendous spokeswoman.”
The recommendation to fire Conway came from the Office of Special Counsel, an agency that enforces the Hatch Act governing politics in the federal workplace and is unrelated to the former special counsel, Robert Mueller, who investigated Trump and Russia.
The agency called Conway a “repeat offender” for using her perch at the White House to engage in campaign politics when she went on television or social media criticizing the Democrats running for their party’s nomination to challenge Trump in next year’s election. Henry J. Kerner, the head of the agency, who was appointed by Trump, said her conduct erodes the rule of law.
But the president saw it differently, saying that Conway was entitled to express her opinion, even using her taxpayer-paid White House position. “It looks to me like they’re trying to take away her right of free speech,” he said.
Kerner’s spokesman, Zachary Kurz, said his office would accept Trump’s decision.
“Under the statute, it is up to the president to impose appropriate discipline, if any, in this type of case,” Kurz said. “We respect his prerogative to do so.”
Trump also used the Fox interview Friday to announce that he plans to bring back to his administration Thomas D. Homan, who served as acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement until retiring last year. His nomination to keep the job permanently languished in the Senate.
Homan, who has been a strong supporter of Trump’s hard-line immigration policies in his own appearances on Fox, would become a “border czar” working out of the White House, the president said. “He’s going to be very much involved with the border,” Trump said. “He’ll be reporting directly to me.”
But the president said he has not yet decided on a replacement for Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary who announced Thursday that she will step down at the end of the month after nearly two years as Trump’s chief spokeswoman.
The president said he had many good candidates to take the job, but did explicitly rule out one, Anthony Scaramucci, who served for 11 days as White House communications director before being fired in 2017 after a foul-mouthed rant about his colleagues to a reporter. “I like Anthony, and he’s been very nice and all,” Trump said, “but I think Anthony, he should stay where he is right now.”
The president’s comments on taking campaign help from Russia came after more than a day of withering criticism from Democrats, and even uncomfortable distancing from Republicans who said any candidate should automatically report a foreign effort to influence U.S. elections.
With his initial remarks earlier in the week, Trump had put his relationship with Moscow back into the center of the debate in Washington over the future of the presidency after Mueller reported that he could not establish any criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.
He reopened the issue during an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, when he dismissed the notion that a candidate should call the FBI if approached by a foreign power with election help, as Trump’s own FBI director, Christopher A Wray, has said should happen.
“I don’t think in my whole life I’ve ever called the FBI. In my whole life,” Trump told Stephanopoulos dismissively. “You don’t call the FBI. You throw somebody out of your office, you do whatever you do.”
He added, “Give me a break — life doesn’t work that way.” Reminded that his own FBI director had said such approaches should be reported, Trump said, “the FBI director is wrong.” He later said that he might call the FBI, but only if he thought something wrong had been done. “I think maybe you do both,” he said.
Those comments stirred a fresh furor on Capitol Hill, fueling calls for legislation requiring U.S. political campaigns to report foreign entities that offer campaign help and emboldening Democrats pushing for Trump’s impeachment. Republicans rejected Trump’s logic, flatly saying such approaches should be reported, although they blocked a Democratic bid in the Senate to put that into law.
In his Fox interview Friday, Trump repeated his contention that receiving incriminating information from a foreign power was not inherently wrong. “Well, if I don’t listen, you’re not going to know,” he said.
But he insisted the real scandal was the investigation into whether his campaign had illegally coordinated with Russia during the 2016 campaign. Once again, he termed that “spying,” even though Wray, his own FBI director, has rejected that term to describe investigatory activity.
“Here’s the bottom line,” Trump said. “They spied on my campaign and they got caught.”
Trump also addressed in the ABC interview one of the more damning allegations in the Mueller report: that he told his former White House counsel, Don McGahn, to fire Mueller. The president contradicted McGahn’s account in the report, saying he never “suggested firing Mueller.”
“I don’t care” what McGahn told investigators, Trump said in a portion of the interview released Friday. “It doesn’t matter.”
Stephanopoulos pressed Trump about why McGahn would lie.
“Because he wanted to make himself look like a good lawyer,” Trump said.
The president then raised the possibility that McGahn may have misunderstood what the president had told him because the president had complained so openly that Mueller had conflict-of-interest issues.
“Or he believed it because I would constantly tell anybody that would listen — including you, including the media — that Robert Mueller was conflicted. Robert Mueller had a total conflict of interest,” Trump said.
But when pressed again by Stephanopoulos whether Trump said that Mueller had to be removed, Trump said: “I didn’t say that.”