President Trump has repeatedly brushed off claims that he and his associates colluded with Russian officials during the 2016 election in order to tilt the results in their favor. Now, a report from Politico offers further ammunition for his critics and acts as the latest chapter in the ever-unfolding scandal, which stretches back to the earliest days of his presidency.
On Wednesday evening, the outlet reported that President Trump had called up two GOP senators in July and earlier this month to “vent his frustrations” over the ongoing investigation, according to sources familiar with the situation. One of those senators was Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN); the other was Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC).
“He was clearly frustrated,” one source said of Trump’s call with Corker, during which the president expressed his displeasure with the recent bipartisan Russia sanctions bill, which was passed on July 25. Trump signed the bill on August 2, after calling the measure “seriously flawed.”
According to three sources with knowledge of the Trump-Corker phone call in July, the president “argued that the legislation was unconstitutional” before adding that it would “damage his presidency.” Trump also reportedly tried to convince Corker that the Russia sanctions weren’t “good policy,” but Corker pushed back, telling the president that the bill “was going to pass both houses with bipartisan support” anyway.
In a call with Tillis in early August, Trump reportedly became upset over legislation that the North Carolina senator was working on with Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) that would block any attempt by the president to fire independent counsel Robert Mueller. Mueller is currently investigating possible ties between the Trump administration and Russia. According to one of the sources who spoke with Politico, Trump was reportedly “unhappy with the legislation and didn’t want it to pass.”
Both senators’ spokespersons confirmed the calls had taken place, but claimed the calls had been “cordial” and “productive.”
While troubling, the Corker and Tillis phone calls are just the latest in a string of attempts by Trump to interfere in the Russia investigation—a pattern that began shortly after he entered the Oval Office in January.
February: Trump reportedly enlists the help of Republicans to fight unflattering Russia stories
In February, a Washington Post report claimed that the White House had enlisted the aid of several Republican members of Congress to fight the Russia news story. Among those tapped to reportedly contact news organizations on the president’s behalf were Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the respective chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees. Both men had access to classified information important to the ongoing investigation.
Both Nunes’ and Burr’s spokespersons later confirmed that the two had spoken with reporters, but denied having done anything wrong. But Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, claimed the Russia probe had been corrupted.
“[I have] grave concerns about what this means for the independence [of the Russia investigation],” Warner told the Post. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (CA), ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, agreed, adding in a statement, “[If the White House] contrived to have intelligence officials contradict unfavorable news reports, this represents a new and even more grave threat to the independence of the intelligence community.”
CNN also reported that month that the White House had asked the FBI, then being run by Director James Comey, to “publicly knock down” any news stories concerning communications between Trump associates and Russia, a charge which the White House denied. Comey reportedly rejected the request.
May: Trump fires FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing the Russia probe
Following months of deteriorating relations, news broke on May 9 that the president had fired FBI Director Comey, who at the time was leading the Russia probe.
Publicly, the White House reasoned that Comey had mishandled investigations into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails. Trump also claimed in a letter that Comey had lost the ability to effectively lead the Bureau. However, many in Washington—Republican members of Congress included—saw the move as an attempt to quash the ongoing Russia investigation.
“I’ve spent the last several hours trying to find an acceptable rationale for the timing of Comey’s firing,” Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) tweeted. “I just can’t do it.”
In March, Comey had testified before Congress that the FBI was looking into possible ties between Trump associates and Russian officials. He also stated that the country’s intelligence officials were all in agreement that Russia had hacked the 2016 election in favor of Trump, to hurt rival Clinton. In his May dismissal letter, Trump claimed that Comey had told him the opposite, in private conversations.
“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” he wrote. “It is essential that we find new leadership for the FBI that restores public trust and confidence in its vital law enforcement mission.”
Following his firing, Comey testified again before Congress, writing a lengthy statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee in which he rebuffed Trump’s claims and detailed how the president had asked him to pledge his loyalty. He also recounted a meeting in which Trump asked him to drop an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who had met with Russian officials during the campaign and misled the White House about it later.
Despite pushback from the White House over his testimony, most Democrats, and at least a handful of Republicans, sided with Comey.
“He doesn’t strike me as someone who would lie under oath,” said Rep. Mike Lee (R-UT), in a comment to reporters.
July: Trump reportedly dictates son’s misleading statement defending his meeting with a Russian lawyer
News leaked in late July that Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., had met with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign to obtain damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Donald Jr. claimed he had done nothing wrong, but the backlash was swift.
Perhaps more troubling than the meeting itself was Donald Jr.’s response. Although he later admitted that he had changed his story, the younger Trump initially claimed that the meeting’s sole purpose was to discuss Russian adoptions and that the two parties had not discussed the campaign.
A Washington Post report in late July claimed that the president himself had dictated Donald Jr.’s initial false statement — suggesting the president had directly involved himself in his son’s efforts to downplay the meeting.
“This was…unnecessary,” an anonymous White House adviser told the Post. “Now someone can claim he’s the one who attempted to mislead. Somebody can argue the president is saying he doesn’t want you to say the whole truth.”
Trump’s attorney, Jay Sekulow, claimed that reports the president had dictated the statement were “misinformed, inaccurate, and not pertinent.” But White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders contradicted Sekulow a short while later, telling reporters that Trump had “weighed in, as any father would, based on the limited information he had.”
“[He] certainly didn’t dictate [the statement],” she said. “[He] offered suggestion, like any father would do.”
While the Republican phone calls, the Comey firing, and Donald Jr.’s statement are the most damning examples of Trump’s attempts at interference, his feuds with various members of Congress and his Cabinet have also added fuel to the fire.
In mid-July, following a storm of criticism over the Comey firing, Trump sat down with a group of New York Times reporters and fumed over Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation earlier in the year. Sessions had previously come under fire for meeting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016, when he was serving as a policy adviser to the Trump campaign, and had made the decision to recuse after pressure from top Democrats, who no longer trusted his ability to be impartial on the matter.
Following months of congressional deadlock on health care, the president’s bubbling feud with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also spilled over into the public eye in August. Although the president was angered by McConnell’s inability to pass an Obamacare repeal and replace bill, sources inside the White House claimed that Trump was also frustrated by McConnell’s inability to “protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election” The New York Times reported.