President Donald Trump, battling allegations that Russia helped him win the White House, claimed Wednesday that Vladimir Putin actually would have preferred a Hillary Clinton victory.
Decrying what he called a political “witch hunt,” Trump also came to the defense of his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, after the release of emails showing his namesake’s embrace of a Russian offer to provide derogatory information about Clinton.
The email exchange has been described in some quarters as a possible “smoking gun” in the ongoing investigation by an independent prosecutor into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to get the Republican elected.
“My son Donald did a good job last night,” Trump said in a morning tweet, referring to a Fox television appearance by Donald Jr. in which he sought to defend his actions.
“This is the greatest Witch Hunt in political history. Sad!” tweeted the president, who has kept a low profile since returning from a Group of 20 summit in Germany and was to fly out of Washington again late Wednesday for a visit to France.
In an interview with Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump said he got along “very, very well” with Putin – with whom he met for more than two hours in Hamburg last week.
But Trump nonetheless claimed Russia’s president would have preferred a win by the Democrat Clinton in 2016.
“There are many things that I do that are the exact opposite of what he (Putin) would want,” Trump said.
“So what I keep hearing about that he would have rather had Trump, I think ‘probably not,’ because when I want a strong military, you know she wouldn’t have spent the money on military,” he said.
“When I want tremendous energy – we’re opening up coal, we’re opening up natural gas, we’re opening up fracking, all the things that he would hate – but nobody ever mentions that,” he said.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the Kremlin controversy has thrust the fledgling White House into “chaos” and left Trump “enraged that the Russia cloud still hangs over his presidency.”
CNN quoted a top Republican close to the administration as saying it has left the White House “paralysed.”
Trump personally sought Wednesday to dispel the image of an administration in crisis and a president obsessed with TV coverage of it.
“The WH is functioning perfectly, focused on HealthCare, Tax Cuts/Reform & many other things. I have very little time for watching TV” he tweeted.
The controversy spilled over Wednesday into the Senate confirmation hearing for Trump’s nominee to lead the FBI, Christopher Wray, named after the president fired FBI director James Comey in May in frustration over the persistent Russia probe.
Under questioning, Wray said he had not discussed the investigation – now in the hands of an independent prosecutor, former FBI director Robert Mueller – with Trump, and pledged to insulate the agency from political interference.
“There is only one right way to do this job, and that is with strict independence,” Wray said.
Wray also dismissed criticism of the Mueller probe. “I do not consider director Mueller to be on a witch hunt,” the FBI nominee said.
Donald Trump Jr released emails on Tuesday in which he was told he could get “very high level and sensitive information” that was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
In response, the 39-year-old – who runs the family real estate business – wrote back saying, “if it’s what you say I love it.” He then held a meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya, a woman described in the emails as a “Russian government attorney.”
Trump’s then-campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also attended the June 2016 meeting.
Kushner, who has been serving as a senior adviser to Trump, has caught some flak for failing to initially disclose the meeting during his security clearance process.
Speaking to Fox News, Trump Jr said he went to the meeting to see what it was about and didn’t mention it to his father because “there was nothing to tell.”
US intelligence agencies have concluded that Putin approved a mass effort to tilt the election in Trump’s favour, including hacking and leaking embarrassing emails from Democrats.
The latest disclosures all but ensure the president’s son will come under scrutiny by investigators in Congress and at the FBI who are probing whether Trump’s team was in the know.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, insisted it had no links to the Russian lawyer, and the Russian billionaire identified as a middleman for the Donald Jr meeting also sought to distance himself.
“We never had any contact with this lawyer,” said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. “She doesn’t have even the slightest relation to us.”
In the emails released Tuesday, Rob Goldstone – a publicist close to the Trumps – tells Donald Jr about an offer allegedly made by Russia’s general prosecutor to provide the Trump campaign with dirt on Clinton during talks with real estate mogul Aras Agalarov.
But Agalarov rubbished the emails touting him as a go-between for the Trumps and the Kremlin and said he only vaguely knew Goldstone.
“I think this is some sort of fiction. I don’t know who is making it up,” Agalarov told Russia’s Business FM radio station.