U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters after his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 10, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque(reuters_tickers)
By Ginger Gibson and Julia Harte
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump raised the firing of the FBI director in a meeting with Russia's foreign minister to explain why he had been unable to find areas of cooperation with Moscow, two top administration officials said on Sunday.
"The gist of the conversation was that the president feels as if he is hamstrung in his ability to work with Russia to find areas of cooperation because this has been obviously so much in the news," National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" programme.
On the "Fox News Sunday" show Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Trump was also trying to convey to the Russians that he was "not going to be distracted by all these issues at home that affect us domestically."
Tillerson and McMaster were present at the May 10 meeting where Trump discussed his firing of James Comey, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, with Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister and Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States.
The New York Times, citing officials familiar with an internal White House summary of the meeting, reported that Trump referred to Comey as a "nut job" and said his removal would relieve "great pressure" coming from the agency's probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Lavrov denied that the subject of Comey came up during the meeting, according to Interfax news agency.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had offered to provide the U.S. Congress with transcripts of the same meeting to counter reports that Trump also disclosed classified information to Lavrov about a planned Islamic State operation.
However, neither McMaster nor Tillerson on Sunday disputed that the subject of Comey's dismissal came up in the meeting with Russian officials. Both said that Trump's remarks had been misinterpreted.
A steady drip of revelations about the meeting and the broader issue of Trump administration's ties to Russia have complicated the president's policy agenda and threatened to overshadow his first foreign trip.
Trump arrived on Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the first leg of a nine-day trip and is due to go to Israel on Monday. The trip also includes stops at the Vatican, a NATO meeting in Brussels and the Group of Seven summit in Sicily.
Last week, former FBI director Robert Mueller was named special counsel to investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion between Trump's campaign and Moscow.
Russia has denied any meddling and Trump has said there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia.
Two sources told Reuters on Friday the administration was exploring whether it could use an obscure ethics rule to undermine Mueller's investigation. In response, Representative Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader, said on Saturday she would introduce legislation aimed at protecting Mueller's probe.
U.S. lawmakers from both parties have expressed varying degrees of concern about ties between the Trump administration and Russia and the president's handling of the matter.
Republican U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona told "Fox News Sunday" he was left "speechless" by reports of Trump's remarks about Comey in the May 10 meeting.
"I don't know how to read it except that, I'm almost speechless because I don't know why someone would say something like that," McCain said, adding that the president should never have met with the Russian officials.
Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanolpoulos" show he was trying to obtain notes from the meeting and expected to speak to the former FBI director on Monday.
On the same programme, Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House panel, called on Chaffetz to subpoena the White House for documents related to the committee's probe into Comey's firing.
Comey is set to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is also examining Russia's role in the election and possible ties to Trump's campaign, in two weeks. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican on the panel, told CNN's "State of the Union" programme on Sunday he would ask the former FBI director whether he ever felt pressured to not do his job.
"If any president tries to impede an investigation – any president, no matter who it is – by interfering with the FBI, yes, that would be problematic. That would be not just problematic, it would be obviously a potential obstruction of justice that people have to make a decision on," Rubio said.
Rubio emphasized that he will reserve judgement until he has seen all the evidence and heard from sources, including Comey.
(Writing by Amanda Becker; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)