Updated 8:50 p.m. ET
President Trump said at a wide-ranging news conference Thursday that he didn’t direct resigned national security adviser Michael Flynn to talk about U.S. sanctions on Russia in a pre-inauguration phone call Flynn had with Russia’s U.S. ambassador, but he would have.
“I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence,” Trump said of Flynn misleading the then-vice president-elect about the true nature of Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador. But, he added, “Mike [Flynn] was doing his job. He was calling countries and his counterparts. So, it certainly would have been OK with me if he did it. I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn’t doing it. I didn’t direct him, but I would have directed him because that’s his job.”
Flynn was interviewed by the FBI about his conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. A source familiar with the matter has told NPR’s Carrie Johnson that a criminal charge against Flynn in connection with what he told the FBI is unlikely.
Asked at the news conference about reports that members of the Trump staff were in contact with Russia during the campaign, Trump said, “Nobody that I know of.” The source has told Carrie that authorities continue to investigate those alleged connections.
“Russia is a ruse,” Trump said. “I know you have to get up and ask a question. It’s so important.” He reiterated, “Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years. Don’t speak to people from Russia. Not that I wouldn’t. I just have nobody to speak to. I spoke to Putin twice. He called me on the election. I told you this. And he called me on the inauguration, a few days ago.”
The New York Times reported Wednesday that members of Trump’s campaign “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.”
Trump said such reports amounted to “fake news.”
In his first extended remarks since accepting Flynn’s resignation, Trump called him “a fine man,” again contradicting the tough tone his press secretary, Sean Spicer, echoed on Monday — that Flynn had violated Trump’s trust.
In briefing Pence for a round of TV appearances last month, Flynn denied he discussed the U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia in December with Kislyak, White House officials have said.
Trump said Flynn “did something wrong with respect to the vice president, and I thought that was not acceptable.”
But Trump said as far as Flynn calling Kislyak and talking about the previous president’s sanctions, he saw nothing wrong.
“I’ve watched various programs, and I’ve read various articles,” Trump said, “where he was just doing his job.”
Trump lashed out at reporters for “this whole Russia scam that you guys are building, so that you don’t talk about the real subject, which is illegal leaks.”
Of course, Trump wasn’t always so down on leaks. He was touting hacks of Democratic emails during the presidential campaign. Those hacks, the U.S. intelligence community agrees, were at the behest of the Russian government and published on WikiLeaks.
Trump said he has asked the Department of Justice to investigate the leaks, which revealed, in part, the Flynn contacts. He called those leaks “criminal.”
But those leaks to the public appear to be what led to Flynn’s ouster. The president knew since Jan. 26 the true nature of Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador and that he misled Pence. But Pence’s spokesman said the vice president didn’t find out about it until Thursday, when he read it in the paper.
Trump said the leaks are “absolutely real,” but “the news is fake.”
Members of Congress, however, think otherwise. They are planning their own investigations into the relationship between Trump’s aides and Russia.
Trump repeated his assertion that “it would be great” if the U.S. had a good relationship with Russia. He said he has had two phone calls with Putin since being elected. But Trump said the “false reporting by the media” makes it much harder for him to “make a deal with Russia.”
Asked about the presence of a Russian spy ship that has been lingering off the Northeast U.S. coast, Trump repeated, “Not good.” He gave the same response to reports that Russia has deployed a new type of missile prohibited under arms accords and to a report that Russian fighter jets buzzed an American Navy destroyer in the Black Sea last week.
He denied, though, that Putin was testing him.
“The greatest thing I could do,” Trump said, “is shoot that ship that’s 30 miles offshore right out of the water.
“Everyone in this country’s going to say, ‘Oh, it’s so great.’ That’s not great. That’s not great. I would love to be able to get along with Russia.”
But he refused to say what actions he was actually considering in response, if anything at all.
Trump also said he had been briefed on each country’s nuclear capabilities and said, “Nuclear holocaust would be like no other.”