President Trump has spent the last year and a half trying to walk back or gaslight the public about his interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, wherein he admitted that his decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey was about the Russia investigation.
On Wednesday, the president repeated that gaffe, essentially admitting that his decision to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions and appoint a Trump-friendly “acting” attorney general was also about the Russia investigation.
During an interview with the conservative site The Daily Caller, Trump was asked about his thinking behind appointing a new attorney general, one week after he fired Sessions. He said that Matthew Whitaker, Sessions’ chief of staff who is acting as a temporary replacement, was “very respected.”
The president then turned, unprompted, to the Mueller investigation, calling it “illegal” and something “that should have never been brought.” He then defended Whitaker’s status as an acting attorney general unconfirmed by the Senate, drawing comparisons to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who was also not confirmed by the Senate.
Per the Daily Caller’s transcript:
THE DAILY CALLER: Sure. Could you tell us where your thinking is currently on the attorney general position? I know you’re happy with Matthew Whitaker, do you have any names? Chris Christie —
POTUS: Matthew Whitaker is a very respected man. He’s — and he’s, very importantly, he’s respected within DOJ. I heard he got a very good decision, I haven’t seen it. Kellyanne, did I hear that?
WHITE HOUSE ADVISER KELLYANNE CONWAY: 20 pages.
POTUS: A 20 page?
THE DAILY CALLER: It just came out right before this, sir.
POTUS: Well, I heard it was a very strong opinion. Uh, which is good. But [Whitaker] is just somebody who’s very respected. I knew him only as he pertained, you know, as he was with Jeff Sessions.
And, um, you know, look, as far as I’m concerned this is an investigation that should have never been brought. It should have never been had. It’s something that should have never been brought. It’s an illegal investigation.
And you know, it’s very interesting because when you talk about not Senate confirmed, well, Mueller’s not Senate confirmed. … He’s heading this whole big thing, he’s not Senate confirmed. So anyway, I have a lot of respect for Matt Whitaker, based primarily on reputation. And I think he’s really — I think a lot of people are starting to come out very much in favor of him during this period of time.
THE DAILY CALLER: What about who will eventually replace him, sir?
POTUS: Well, I’m looking at a lot of people. I have been called by so many people wanting that job. We have some great people. In the meantime, I think Matt’s going to do a fantastic job.
To sum up Trump’s position: he forced his attorney general to resign, someone who he had castigated publicly for his decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation, and replaced him with Whitaker, who has called Mueller’s probe into Russian interference and the Trump campaign “a fishing expedition.” When asked about who he wanted to be the next attorney general of the United States, Trump praised Whitaker and argued that the Russia investigation should never have been conducted.
This is similar to Trump’s May 2017 interview with Holt, in which the anchor asked Trump about his decision to fire Comey and Trump brought up the Russia investigation, unbidden.
“He had made a recommendation. But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it. 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,'” Trump told Holt in the now-famous interview.
There’s a good argument that admitting that he fired Comey to interfere with the investigation and defend himself or his allies makes clear Trump was obstructing justice. Firing Sessions and installing someone like Whitaker with the goal of interfering with the investigation would be very similar.
The Mueller probe is clearly at the forefront of Trump’s attention. Later on in the interview, as he was answering a question about immigration, Trump began talking about “presidential harassment” — i.e. oversight and investigations — and returned to Mueller.
“Just like the witch hunt, the Mueller witch hunt,” he said. “It’s pure harassment. It’s horrible. It’s horrible that they’re allowed to get away with it.”