President Trump said he would not overrule his acting attorney general, Matthew G. Whitaker, if he decides to curtail the special counsel probe being led by Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign.
“Look, it’s going to be up to him . . . I would not get involved,” Trump said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”
In the weeks since Trump forced Jeff Sessions to resign as attorney general and chose Whitaker to serve as his interim replacement, Whitaker has faced calls from Democrats to recuse himself from oversight of the probe given his previous criticism of the investigation. Trump said in Sunday’s interview that he “did not know [Whitaker] took views on the Mueller investigation as such” before he appointed him to his position.
Trump also essentially shut the door to sitting down with Mueller, telling host Chris Wallace that his written answers mean “probably this is the end” of his involvement in the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
“I think we’ve wasted enough time on this witch hunt and the answer is probably: We’re finished,” Trump said. He said that he had given “very complete answers to a lot of questions” and that “that should solve the problem.”
Trump said Friday that he had answered a set of written questions from Mueller “very easily.” The president told Wallace in Sunday’s interview that it “wasn’t a big deal” and that he expects his legal team to submit the answers “at some point very soon.”
Trump’s answers had long been sought by Mueller during the course of his 18-month-old investigation. The probe has led to charges against 32 people, including 26 Russians. While four aides to Trump have pleaded guilty to various charges, Mueller’s team has not given any public indications as to whether it has concluded that Trump associates conspired with the Russians or whether the president obstructed justice by pressuring Justice Department leaders.
Key lawmakers also weighed in on Whitaker on Sunday.
In an appearance on ABC News’s “This Week,” incoming Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) contended that Whitaker “was chosen for the purpose of interfering with the Mueller investigation” and said he “should have absolutely nothing to do” with the probe. Schiff also said Whitaker should be subject to Senate confirmation.
“He auditioned for the part by going on TV and saying he could hobble the investigation,” Schiff said, calling Whitaker’s appointment unconstitutional and “an attack on the rule of law.”
Trump fired back in a tweet Sunday afternoon in which he argued that Mueller had not been confirmed by the Senate, either. However, Mueller, unlike the attorney general, is not a Cabinet-level official; he was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, and his role does not require Senate confirmation.
Mueller, however, was twice confirmed by the Senate to serve as FBI director — in 2001 and 2011.
“So funny to see little Adam Schitt (D-CA) talking about the fact that Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker was not approved by the Senate, but not mentioning the fact that Bob Mueller (who is highly conflicted) was not approved by the Senate!” Trump said, misspelling Schiff’s last name.
The lawmaker responded sarcastically in a tweet of his own: “Wow, Mr. President, that’s a good one. Was that like your answers to Mr. Mueller’s questions, or did you write this one yourself?”
Some Republicans on Sunday were looking past Whitaker and focusing on his potential successor. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said that Whitaker “seems to be a person who has the ability to do that acting job” but that the Justice Department needs a permanent leader as soon as possible.
“We need to move as quickly as we can beyond whoever’s the acting attorney general to an attorney general who’s going to be there for, hopefully, a much longer period of time,” he told ABC.
Blunt, a member of the Senate GOP leadership who also sits on the Intelligence Committee, said that he has confidence in the Mueller investigation and that it would be a “huge mistake” for Trump to seek to end it. “We need to get beyond this. We don’t need to have this starting again,” the senator said.
During Sunday’s wide-ranging interview, Trump said he does not feel it is necessary for him to listen to an audio recording of journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last month.
“We have the tape. I don’t want to hear the tape. No reason for me to hear the tape,” Trump said. He described it as “a suffering tape” and told Wallace, “I know everything that went on in the tape without having to hear it . . . It was very violent, very vicious and terrible.”
The CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Khashoggi, a prominent critic of Saudi leaders and a contributing columnist to The Washington Post. But Trump maintained on “Fox News Sunday” that the crown prince had told him “maybe five different times” and “as recently as a few days ago” that he had nothing to do with the killing. Aides have said that Trump has been looking for ways to avoid pinning the blame on Mohammed.
“Well, will anybody really know?” Trump said in Sunday’s interview when asked whether the crown prince might have been lying to him. He added: “You saw we put on very heavy sanctions, massive sanctions on a large group of people from Saudi Arabia. But, at the same time, we do have an ally, and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good.”
Trump also weighed in on the performance of several top members of his administration and maintained that his party had succeeded in the midterm elections despite losing the House.
Trump said there are people in “three or four or five positions” in his administration whom he is thinking about replacing and that of those, “maybe it’s going to end up being two.”
He declined to say whether chief of staff John F. Kelly will remain in his position through 2020 as previously indicated, saying only, “I mean, it could be. Let’s see what happens.”
“There are certain things I love what he does,” Trump said of Kelly. “And there are certain things that I don’t like that he does that aren’t his strength . . . It’s not his fault; it’s not his strength.”
Trump praised Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen but also suggested that she may leave his administration at some point. Trump has voiced dissatisfaction about Nielsen’s performance on immigration enforcement and has previously told advisers that he has decided to remove her in the coming weeks.
“I want her to get much tougher, and we’ll see what happens there. But I want to be extremely tough,” Trump said in Sunday’s interview.
He claimed that despite Republicans’ defeat in the House, where they have lost at least three dozen seats, their holding on to the Senate was “historic” and “a tremendous victory.”
“I didn’t run. I wasn’t running. My name wasn’t on the ballot,” Trump said. During the months leading up to Election Day, he repeatedly told supporters at his “Make America Great Again” rallies to “pretend I’m on the ballot.”
Trump also said Sunday that he could not envision a situation in which he would try to amend the Constitution to run for a third term as president in 2024.
“Just won’t happen,” Trump told Wallace. “I think the eight-year limit is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
Tory Newmyer, Carol D. Leonnig and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.