According to the Times report, Trump called Whitaker shortly after he assumed his post late last year to ask whether Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and a perceived loyalist, could be put in charge of an investigation that included Trump’s role in silencing two women who alleged past affairs with him.
Whitaker knew he could not put Berman in charge because Berman had already recused himself from the investigation, the Times reported, citing several officials with direct knowledge of the call between Trump and Whitaker.
After Whitaker’s refusal, Trump soured on Whitaker, according to the Times reporting, which The Washington Post has not confirmed.
The Times highlighted the anecdote in a story that portrayed a pattern by Trump of seeking to beat back an array of investigations, including the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
The Times responded to Trump’s tweet early Wednesday afternoon with a tweet defending its reporting.
“@realDonaldTrump We stand by our investigation, which was rigorously reported and based on a review of confidential White House documents as well as interviews with dozens of current and former government officials and others close to President Trump,” the tweet said.
In a separate statement, New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger responded to Trump’s continuing attacks on the press.
“The phrase ‘enemy of the people’ is not just false, it’s dangerous, Sulzberger said. “It has an ugly history of being wielded by dictators and tyrants who sought to control public information. And it is particularly reckless coming from someone whose office gives him broad powers to fight or imprison the nation’s enemies.”
Trump was asked on Tuesday, after the Times story was published online, about his reported inquiry to Whitaker.
“No, I don’t know who gave you that, that’s more fake news,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “There’s a lot of fake news out there. No, I didn’t.”
Trump went on to say he has “a lot of respect for Mr. Whitaker,” calling him a “very, very straight shooter” and praising his combative performance this month in a hearing by the House Judiciary Committee.
The panel’s chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), has summoned Whitaker back to the Hill to explain what he has characterized as “inconsistent” statements made during the hearing.
Among the areas Nadler wants to explore is whether Trump or any White House official expressed displeasure with Whitaker in the wake of the November guilty plea by Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen to charges including lying to Congress about a proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow.
Cohen has also said he was tasked by Trump with facilitating hush payments to women who alleged affairs.