During a wide-ranging interview on CBS' "Face The Nation," President Donald Trump said "you have to get rid of the Russia investigation," parroted a Kremlin talking point, downplayed the crimes members of his inner circle pleaded guilty to, and suggested he may object to the release of a final report in the Russia probe.
He referred to the 12 Russian military intelligence officers and 13 Russian nationals aligned with the Kremlin who have been charged as "bloggers."
He also defended the longtime GOP strategist Roger Stone, who was recently arrested and charged with lying to Congress, obstruction, and witness tampering. Trump said he has "not thought about" pardoning Stone yet.
And while the president initially said it's up to the attorney general whether or not to release the special counsel Robert Mueller's final report, Trump walked his comment back, saying, "I don't know. It depends. I have no idea what it's going to say."
President Donald Trump unleashed his frustration about the Russia investigation and the special counsel Robert Mueller during a wide-ranging interview on CBS' "Face The Nation" that aired Sunday.
Among other things, the president said "you have to get rid of the Russia witch hunt" and attempted to downplay the indictments and guilty pleas so far, many of which have come from members of his inner circle.
Thirty-four people have been charged as part of the investigation, which is examining Russia's interference in the 2016 US election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow. Several people, including the former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the former campaign manager Paul Manafort, the former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates, and Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen, have pleaded guilty.
Asked to address the indictments and guilty pleas, Trump replied, " Of the 34 people, many of them were bloggers from Moscow or they were people that had nothing to do with me, had nothing to do with what they're talking about, or there were people that got caught telling a fib or telling a lie."
The "bloggers" the president referenced are 12 Russian military intelligence officers and 13 Russian nationals working for a troll farm supported by the Kremlin. By calling them bloggers, Trump appeared to be echoing Russian President Vladimir Putin's claim that many of the Russians who were indicted are merely independent hackers who are not aligned with the Kremlin. But US intelligence officials say the defense is a red herring because the Kremlin rarely carries out its own orders. Instead, Putin is known to use proxies to do his dirty work to maintain plausible deniability.
Meanwhile, Cohen, Manafort, Flynn, Gates, and the former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos all pleaded guilty to lying to Congress or the FBI — which is a felony — about their Russia contacts or business dealings involving Russia during the election. Manafort and Gates also pleaded guilty to other crimes including conspiracy and obstruction. All of them are currently cooperating or formerly cooperated with prosecutors.
"I think it's a terrible thing that's happened to this country because this investigation is a witch hunt," Trump told CBS' Margaret Brennan. "When you look at General Flynn where the FBI said he wasn't lying, but Robert Mueller said he was, and they took a man and destroyed his life. When you look at so many of the things that have happened — why didn't they go after Hillary Clinton for her emails? She had 33,000 emails that were deleted after receiving a subpoena from Congress."
Brennan interjected and asked Trump about the longtime GOP strategist Roger Stone, who was indicted in January for lying to Congress about his interactions involving WikiLeaks, obstruction, and witness tampering.
"First of all, Roger Stone didn't work on the campaign, except way, way at the beginning, long before we're talking about," Trump responded. "Roger is somebody that I've always liked, but a lot of people like Roger — some people probably don't like Roger — but Roger Stone's somebody I've always liked."
Stone was an informal adviser to the Trump campaign in the early stages of the race. Even after he stopped advising the campaign, Stone and Trump had frequent late-night phone calls. Both Stone and Trump have said they did not discuss WikiLeaks, Russia, or WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during their calls.
But prosecutors are said to be zeroing in on those calls, one of which took place in early August 2016, hours after Stone learned from his associate, Jerome Corsi, that WikiLeaks had obtained "damaging" information on the Clinton campaign and was planning on releasing it soon.
Prosecutors also dropped a bombshell when they revealed that a senior Trump campaign official "was directed" by someone else on the campaign to stay in touch with Stone about WikiLeaks' planned document dumps.
Stone pleaded not guilty to all the charges and struck a defiant tone following his arrest. He also went on a media blitz asserting his innocence, and he stacked his team with a well known First Amendment lawyer, indicating that he intends to fight a gag order if one is imposed on him.
"Would you pardon him?" Brennan asked Trump.
"I have not thought about it," Trump said. "It looks like he's defending himself very well. But you have to get rid of the Russia witch hunt."
Mueller is said to be putting together a report of his key findings in the Russia investigation that will be submitted to deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein. When a new attorney general — likely William Barr, a former White House lawyer in the George H.W. Bush administration who also served as attorney general — is confirmed, they would decide whether to release the report to Congress, which would in turn be able to release it to the public.
Asked whether he would elect to have the Mueller report made public, Trump initially said it was "totally up to the attorney general."
Later, he walked back his comments, saying, "I don't know. It depends. I have no idea what it's going to say."