NORFOLK — A defiant President Trump unleashed a flurry of nearly a dozen tweets Saturday morning, asserting that he has the “complete power to pardon” aides, family members and possibly even himself — an apparent response to the special counsel’s widening Russia probe — and decrying “illegal leaks” in the “FAKE NEWS.”
The president also lashed out at a new Washington Post report of previously undisclosed alleged contacts between Attorney General Jeff Sessions — at the time a U.S. senator and senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign — and a Russian official. In a tweet, Trump called the disclosures an illegal new “intelligence leak,” part of his continuing effort to try to shift the public focus to what he claims is a partisan attempt to undermine his presidency.
The president's defense of his pardoning authority came days after The Post reported that he and his legal team have discussed his power to pardon those close to him, including himself.
Shortly after his tweet storm, which started just after 6:30 a.m. and lasted nearly two hours, Trump flew to Norfolk, where he injected a small dose of partisan politics into the ceremonial commissioning of a new naval warship.
Speaking aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford, Trump extolled the virtues of the “wonderful, beautiful but very, very powerful” nuclear-powered warship — “We will win, win, win,” he said, “we will never lose” — but also decried the budget compromise known as sequestration, which requires mandatory and corresponding military and domestic cuts.
Trump promised to try to restore higher levels of military funding but also urged the crowd of about 6,500 — many in uniform — to help him push this year’s budget, in which he said he will seek an additional $54 billion in defense spending, through Congress.
“I don’t mind getting a little hand, so call that congressman and call that senator and make sure you get it,” he said, to applause. “And by the way, you can also call those senators to make sure you get health care.”
But Trump’s brief appeal created a potentially awkward tableau at a commissioning event intended to be ceremonial — a commander in chief offering political remarks, and what could even be construed as an order, to the naval officers he commands.
The president’s 17-minute speech aboard the naval vessel here, as well as his frenzied social media assertions Saturday — which veered between proclamations of innocence and frustration — came as Trump is struggling to stabilize his presidency, just six months in. He and several family members, including his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., and his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, are facing mounting legal questions about their involvement in possible collusion between the president’s 2016 campaign and Russia.
On Friday, Trump implemented the most dramatic, if potentially unintended, overhaul of his White House so far, installing wealthy financier Anthony Scaramucci as his new communications director — a move that set off an unexpected chain reaction of resignations (White House press secretary Sean Spicer) and promotions (deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, into Spicer’s spot at the podium).
Trump's morning tweets began with an assertion that the president has “complete power to pardon” in an apparent allusion to the ongoing probe into his campaign's contacts with Russian officials.
The president's defense of his pardon powers came days after The Post reported that he and his legal team have discussed his power to pardon aides, family members and, possibly, even himself. Trump aides said the president is merely curious about his powers and the limits of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation into Russia's attempt to tamper with the 2016 presidential election.
Currently, the discussions of pardoning authority by Trump’s legal team are purely theoretical, according to two people familiar with the ongoing conversations. But if Trump pardoned himself in the face of the ongoing Mueller investigation, it would set off a legal and political firestorm, first around the question of whether a president can use the constitutional pardon power in that way.
In another tweet, Trump continued his campaign to discredit the investigation as based on leaks of information from political enemies aimed at undermining him. The Post reported late Friday that U.S. intelligence officials had collected information that Russia's ambassador to the United States had told superiors that he had discussed campaign-related matters and policies important to Moscow last year with Jeff Sessions, then a senator who had endorsed Trump.
As he has before, Trump also reiterated on Twitter his view that Hillary Clinton's campaign should be under greater scrutiny, and he contended that his son Donald Trump Jr. “openly” disclosed emails concerning a meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign — even though Trump Jr. did so after the New York Times obtained the emails and was preparing to publish a report on them.
Sessions, who is now attorney general, had initially failed to disclose his meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during his confirmation process. When they were made public in news reports, he insisted he had met with Kislyak only in his capacity as a senator and had not discussed campaign issues. But The Post reported that U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted communications that showed Kislyak indicated he had “substantive” discussions on matters including Trump’s positions on Russia-related issues and prospects for U.S.-Russia relations in a Trump administration.
Trump has denounced what he has called illegal leaks in the ongoing FBI investigation into his campaign's contacts with Russian officials. U.S. intelligence agencies have said Moscow meddled in the campaign, stealing thousands of emails and other documents from Democratic Party officials and releasing them publicly to embarrass the Democratic presidential nominee, Clinton, and to assist Trump. Trump has said repeatedly that he did not collude with Russian officials and called accounts of the meetings between his campaign and Russian operatives a partisan attack by Democrats to avenge their loss in the election. But he and some of his top aides have hired private criminal defense lawyers to deal with the probe.
In his tweet, Trump was referring to former FBI director James B. Comey, whom the president fired over his handling of the Russia probe. Comey later testified to Congress that he had felt pressure from Trump over the investigation and, after he was dismissed, released memos of his encounters with Trump to the media. The public disclosures helped lead to Mueller taking over the investigation. (Trump's tweet also refers to Amazon.com, the online retailer led by Jeffrey P. Bezos, who also owns The Post.)
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on what she called a “wholly uncorroborated intelligence intercept” and reiterated that Sessions had not discussed interference in the election. Trump has been angered by Sessions recusing himself from the Russia probe. The president told the New York Times this week that he would not have named Sessions as attorney general if he had known he would do so.
In yet another tweet, Trump attacked the Times for reports that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose death in a Russian airstrike had been speculated last month, is still alive, according to Pentagon officials. Gen. Tony Thomas told reporters that a Times story in 2015 about using certain data to track Islamic State fighters that was gleaned in the Abu Sayyaf raid resulted in U.S. forces losing the trail to Baghdadi. Thomas mentioned the issue again at the Aspen security forum Friday, and his remarks were featured in a Fox News report, according to the Times.
The Pentagon raised no objections with The Times before the story was published, and no senior American official ever complained publicly about it until now.
His tweets came a day after Sean Spicer resigned as press secretary in the wake of Trump's hiring of New York financier Anthony Scaramucci as his communications director. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was promoted to the press secretary role.