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Trump Defends Comey Firing As Russia Questions Continue To Swirl

President Donald Trump shakes hands with James Comey during an Inaugural Law Enforcement Officers and First Responders Reception in January.

Updated: 1:27 p.m. ET

President Trump on Wednesday defended his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, telling reporters in the Oval Office that "he wasn't doing a good job."

But questions continue to swirl around the timing of Comey's dismissal, who was overseeing the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign and some of the campaign's top aides.

The White House did little to tamp down those concerns though, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meeting with Trump in the Oval Office while Lavrov is in Washington for a previously scheduled trip.

And after Trump's swift firing of Comey drew comparisons to President Richard Nixon's infamous "Saturday Night Massacre," the president then had another surprise visitor beside him as he spoke to reporters — former Nixon Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The administration's position remains that Trump took action against Comey after recommendations from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, even though Sessions had to recuse himself from the Department of Justice Russia investigation being conducted by the FBI.

Lavrov's visit to the White House to meet with the president also included Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak — who spoke with Michael Flynn, Trump's short-lived national security adviser, during the transition late last year and also had contacts with then-Sen. Sessions during the campaign. Those contacts with Kislyak played a role in Flynn's ultimate resignation from his job at the White House and in Sessions' decision to recuse himself from overseeing the FBI's Russia investigation.

On Capitol Hill, Vice President Pence denied that Russia was a motivating factor in Trump's decision.

"The president took strong and decisive leadership here to put the safety and security of the American people first," Pence said.

However, the vice president skirted questions about whether or not Trump had asked Rosenstein to conduct the review of Comey's handling of the Clinton email investigation. In Rosenstein's memo released Tuesday night, the deputy attorney general concluded Comey's handling of the investigation into Clinton's private email justified his dismissal because Comey had refused to acknowledge what many viewed as mistakes in how and why Comey made public disclosures about the investigation at key moments in the presidential campaign.

"The FBI Director is never empowered to supplant federal prosecutors and assume command of the Justice Department," Rosenstein wrote in the memorandum to Sessions, which was then forwarded to the president.

However, during the campaign Trump praised Comey and said his decision to reopen the investigation less than two weeks before Election Day took "guts." Clinton and other Democrats have said they believe that controversial decision helped tip the election to Trump — and it was those statements Republicans began to seize upon on Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell defended the termination, noting how harshly Democrats criticized Comey's handling of the FBI's investigation into Clinton's private email server.

"Last year, the current Democratic leader said it appeared to be an appalling act," McConnell said from the Senate floor. "One that he said goes against the tradition of prosecutors at every level."

Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, however, tried to shift the focus away from the Clinton email investigation and onto the current FBI investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

"There is little reason to think that Mr. Rosenstein's reason is the true reason that President Trump fired Director Comey," Schumer said Wednesday, responding to Schumer in the Senate chamber. "Why? Because if the administration truly had objections to the way Director Comey handled the investigation they would have had them the minute the president got into office. But he didn't fire Director Comey then.

"The question is: Why did it happen last night?"

Schumer continued a near-universal call from Democrats for a special prosecutor to take over the FBI's Russia investigation, but McConnell called the suggestion unnecessary and said a new investigation would "impede the current work being done" by the FBI and by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Before he met with Trump, Lavrov appeared to mock the kerfuffle over Comey's firing. During a photo-op with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a reporter yelled out a question about whether Comey's firing "casts a shadow" on Lavrov's visit. Lavrov scoffed and waved his hand dismissingly before walking away.

"Was he fired? Was he fired?" Lavrov said. "You're kidding!"

And prior to McConnell's and Schumer's remarks on the Senate floor, the president was predictably on Twitter sounding off about his decision to get rid of the FBI director. "Comey lost the confidence of almost everyone in Washington, Republican and Democrat alike." Trump tweeted, "When things calm down, they will be thanking me!"

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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