President Trump said Thursday that he was surprised by the FBI’s pre-dawn raid of his former campaign chairman’s home last month, calling the action “pretty tough stuff” but declining to weigh in on whether it was appropriate.
In his first public comments since the raid was made public this week by The Washington Post, Trump called Manafort “a very decent man” but said he hadn’t spoken to him for a long time. “I thought it was a very, very strong signal, or whatever,” Trump said of the raid, speaking to reporters at his private golf club in Bedminster, N.J., where he is vacationing.
The raid, which occurred without warning on July 26, marked an aggressive new approach by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and his team in dealing with a key figure in the Russia inquiry. Using a search warrant, agents appeared the day Manafort was scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee and a day after he met voluntarily with Senate Intelligence Committee staff members.
Manafort has been under increasing pressure as the Mueller team looks into his personal finances and his professional career as a highly paid foreign political consultant.
Trump said Manafort is “like a lot of other people, probably makes consultant fees from all over the place, who knows, I don’t know. But I thought it was pretty tough stuff to wake him up. Perhaps his family was there. I think that’s pretty tough stuff.”
Asked whether he had spoken to Attorney General Jeff Sessions or the FBI about the raid, Trump said: “I have not. But to do that early in the morning, whether or not it was appropriate, you’d have to ask them.”
At the time the president was making his comments about the raid, Manafort was changing his legal team. Going forward, Manafort will no longer be represented by Reginald Brown of WilmerHale, a former White House counsel known for his good relationships on Capitol Hill. He will now rely on lawyers at Miller Chevalier, according to his spokesman, Jason Maloni. The new team will be led in part by Kevin Downing, a former Justice Department litigator known for his work on international tax matters. The move may signal that Manafort expects to defend himself in a possible tax inquiry -- and that cooperation with congressional investigators will no longer be the high priority that it was when he retained WilmerHale.
In recent weeks, Manafort provided key documents to congressional committees, including a memo he wrote following the June 9 meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower that had been arranged by the president’s son. The meeting was set up after a family acquaintance promised compromising information on Hillary Clinton from Russian sources.
During the Bedminster briefing, Trump was also asked about the status of his relationship with Sessions, whom Trump has criticized in statements and tweets since the attorney general recused himself from the Russia investigation. Trump has also accused Sessions of not aggressively pursuing allegations of leaks by government officials.
“It is what it is,” Trump said of his relationship with Sessions. “It’s fine.”
Trump offered praise for the attorney general’s work to crack down on illegal crossings of the U.S.-Mexico border. “He’s working hard on the border,” Trump said. “I’m very proud of what we’ve done at the border.”
The president also told reporters that he has no intention of dismissing Mueller, as White House aides have said in recent weeks.
“I haven’t given it any thought.” Trump said. “Well, I’ve been reading about it from you people. You say, ‘Oh, I’m going to dismiss him.’ No, I’m not dismissing anybody. I mean, I want them to get on with the task. But I also want the Senate and the House to come out with their findings.”