WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump focused Sunday on a major address to Muslim leaders at a summit in Riyadh, but back home the day's news shows were dominated by talk of his firing of FBI chief James Comey and investigations into the Trump campaign's links to Russia.
Two key Trump officials, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, told interviewers that at a May 10 White House meeting with two Russian diplomats, Trump brought up Comey's ouster the day before in an effort to show how "distracted" he had been by Comey's investigation of possible Trump campaign collusion with Moscow interests to help him win the election.
According to a New York Times report Friday, Trump told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Moscow's U.S. ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, that Comey was "a real nutjob" and that his removal would relieve "great pressure." Some opposition Democratic lawmakers say that Trump's dismissal of the official investigating him amounts to obstruction of justice, an impeachable offense.
Another Times story said Comey's notes from a February meeting with Trump the day after he fired his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, showed that he urged Comey to drop his probe of Flynn's calls to Kislyak.
McMaster told ABC, "The gist of the conversation was that the president feels as if he is hamstrung in his ability to work with Russia to find areas of cooperation because this has been obviously so much in the news."
Tillerson told Fox News that Trump was also trying to convey to the Russians that he was "not going to be distracted by all these issues at home that affect us domestically."
Republican Senator John McCain, a frequent Trump critic, told Fox News that he was "almost speechless" that Trump would describe Comey in such negative terms. The White House has not denied Trump's attack on Comey while condemning leaks of the Oval Office meeting.
"I don't know why someone would say something like that," McCain said, but stopped short of saying Comey's firing was an effort to impede the FBI's investigation.
"I don't think it was a wise thing to do," McCain said. "Mr. Comey was highly respected and highly regarded and so I can't explain it."
Even with Trump dismissing Comey, Robert Mueller, Comey's predecessor as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the country's top law enforcement agency, was named this past week as special prosecutor to investigate Russia's meddling in the election and whether any Trump aides colluded with Moscow to boost Trump's chances of defeating his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton.
The U.S. intelligence community has concluded Moscow hacked into the computer of Clinton campaign chief John Podesta, with the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks subsequently releasing thousands of his emails in the weeks just before last November's election, depicting embarrassing behind-the-scenes efforts by Democratic operatives to help Clinton win the party's presidential nomination.
Another Republican lawmaker, Senator Marco Rubio, said, "If any president tries to impede an investigation ... no matter who it is, by interfering with the FBI, yes, that would be problematic. That would be not just problematic, it would be obviously a potential obstruction of justice that people have to make a decision on."
Rubio said, however, that he would reserve judgment until he has heard Comey's public testimony before a congressional panel in the coming weeks about his contacts with Trump.