President Donald Trump on Thursday said he believes he holds ultimate authority to direct the Department of Justice as he sees fit, while noting the ongoing inquiry into Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election has made the country "look very bad."
Trump, speaking in an impromptu interview with The New York Times from his golf club in West Palm Beach, Florida, said more than a dozen times that no collusion had been uncovered during the sweeping probe by special counsel Robert Mueller. While he noted that the sooner the inquiry was completed, "the better it is for the country," Trump also broke with his most ardent supporters and said he believed Mueller would treat him fairly.
"I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department," he told the Times. "But for purposes of hopefully thinking I'm going to be treated fairly, I've stayed uninvolved with this particular matter."
The president's comments, made without any aides present, once again appear to undermine the DOJ's ability to operate as an entity independent of the political whims of the White House.
Trump's surrogates have moved in recent months to discredit Mueller's investigation, and rumors have swirled for weeks that the president may fire the special counsel. The president ― who has denied he planned to remove Mueller ― has repeatedly called the probe a "witch hunt" and insisted on his innocence, saying there was no collusion with the Russian government by members of his presidential campaign.
"There's been no collusion," Trump told the Times. "But I think he's going to be fair."
The White House has also rejected assertions by the country's leading intelligence agencies that Russia did meddle in the election, and Trump in November said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin's denials of such interference.
"Every time he sees me, he says, 'I didn't do that,' and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it," Trump said of Putin, according to the Times. "I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country."
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was forced to defend Mueller's investigation earlier this month in the midst of criticisms, saying he believed the investigation was "appropriately remaining in his scope" and that the special counsel was "conducting himself appropriately."
In Thursday's interview, Trump expressed regret that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself from the Russia investigation, which led to the appointment of Mueller.
"It's too bad Jeff recused himself," he said. "I like Jeff, but it's too bad he recused himself."
Read excerpts from the Times interview here.