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Trump: I'd Never Have Picked Sessions If I'd Known About Recusal On Russia


President Donald Trump today had sharp words for his attorney general and earliest political supporter, Jeff Sessions. In an interview with The New York Times, the president said he never would have appointed Sessions had he known that the former Alabama senator was going to recuse himself from the investigation into Russian meddling in the election. The interview also touched on the president's feelings about the former FBI director, James Comey, and his thoughts on the direction of the Justice Department investigation currently under the control of special counsel Robert Mueller.

For more, we turn to Michael Schmidt of The New York Times. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So you did talk about foreign affairs, about health care. But it seems as though you spent a bulk of the time talking about the Russian investigation. So let's start a little bit about Jeff Sessions. What's going on with that relationship?

SCHMIDT: Well, Trump's deeply concerned about Rob - Bob Mueller, the special counsel who's looking into the Russia matter. He's concerned that Mueller will keep, you know, the investigation on just the Russia matter. And he's also upset about how Mueller got appointed. Jeff Sessions, his attorney general, as you pointed out, recused himself very early on from the Russia investigation. And then the deputy attorney general without the White House knowing appointed Mueller to lead this investigation. So this is something that really bothers the president. And you know, he sort of - you know, sort of undercut a lot of the attorney general's standing today by saying that, look; he wouldn't be there if he knew what he knew today.

CORNISH: So just to be clear about that, he essentially said if he had known Sessions would do this, he just wouldn't have had him on at all. That was a litmus test, it sounded like.

SCHMIDT: Correct. And that's interesting because Sessions was one of the most loyal first Trump supporters. He campaigned, came out early for Trump. He campaigned for him. He was a real advocate for Trump and, you know, especially at a time when Trump did not have a lot of allies in the Republican Party.

CORNISH: So how does the president see the role of the special counsel Robert Mueller now? I mean did he say whether or not he'd consider firing him?

SCHMIDT: Well, he wouldn't say whether he would fire Mueller. But what he did say is that it would be a, quote, unquote, "violation" if Mueller were to look into matters outside of the Russian meddling in the election, if Mueller were to look at, say, his family finances or that. I think the president's deeply concerned that Mueller will sort of go beyond what he thinks his purview is and what he's - you know, he's essentially putting him on warning. The president would not say whether he would fire Mueller if he goes outside of what Trump thinks his lane is. But by not answering that question, it sort of raises the issue.

CORNISH: What was the tone over the course of this conversation? I mean can you give us a sense of the president's mood in this moment?

SCHMIDT: Well, I think he - at first he was sort of upbeat talking about, you know - in the beginning parts of the conversation about, you know, the way that his administration has (unintelligible), you know, how well the economy is doing, the stock market - but also talking about some of the frustrations with health care, talking about how, you know, this is something that's going to take longer than obviously he had hoped, you know, the difficulties of the issue. He had just had lunch with Republican senators and seemed encouraged that they were going to actually be able to do something on health care.

He talked about repeal and replace, about how he doesn't just want to repeal and the dangers of that. And you know - but at the same time, you know, he's - you know, was sort of, you know, selling to us why he's done a good job so far and why he's proud of his work in office. And then when you get into the Russia stuff, his demeanor doesn't change drastically, but he is much more pointed in his criticisms and his (unintelligible).

CORNISH: Did he still discuss this as a witch hunt?

SCHMIDT: He didn't use the word witch hunt, but you can clearly see that he doesn't think that there's anything to this, certainly in regards to him, and that there's really - there's not a lot there and that this is a real annoyance for him. I think he knows that this has cast a shadow over his administration. It is a distraction. It is something that he has to talk about when he could be talking about how great he thinks he's doing in office. And I think he gets that and is - was trying today to - I think he thinks he's his best spokesman and trying to do that and to vent and to try and hold people he's upset with accountable and to put people on notice. I mean he was very...


SCHMIDT: He's obviously very aggressive in his public statement.

CORNISH: Michael Schmidt of The New York Times, sorry. We'll have to leave it there. Thank you so much.

SCHMIDT: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.