President Donald Trump on Tuesday denied a report that he called acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker and asked him if it would be possible to put an ally in charge of an investigation into alleged hush money payments.
"No, not at all, I don’t know who gave you that," Trump told reporters at the White House when asked about the report by The New York Times.
The Times, citing several officials with direct knowledge of the call, reported that Trump asked Whitaker whether the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Geoffrey Berman, described by The Times as an ally of the president, could be put atop the investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan into payments during the 2016 campaign to women who alleged affairs with Trump, which the president has denied.
Multiple people familiar with the case said it was inaccurate and unfair to characterize Berman, who was appointed by Trump, as an ally, in part because his office is investigating Trump's inaugural committee and prosecuting one ofTrump’s earliest congressional supporters — Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y. — on insider trading-related charges.
The Times reported that Whitaker knew he could not put Berman in charge of the probe because he was recused from the investigation.
Whitaker, who was replaced as the nation's top law enforcement official by William Barr last week, has told Congress that Trump never pressured him over various investigations.
The Times reported that Trump soured on Whitaker, as he has with other aides, and complained about his inability to help dispel the president's legal problems. But Trump praised Whitaker in his brief White House remarks on Tuesday, saying they have a "very good" relationship.
"I have a lot of respect for Mr. Whitaker. He's doing a very good job," Trump said.
Trump's denial of the Times' article comes amid reports that the law enforcement community sought to preserve evidence in the Russia probe shortly after FBI Director James Comey was fired.
The FBI developed a backup plan to protect evidence in its Russia investigation in the chaotic days after Comey's ouster in the event that other senior officials were dismissed as well, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions.
After Comey was fired, the FBI began investigating whether Trump had obstructed justice and whether he might be, wittingly or not, in league with the Russians. The goal of the backup plan was to ensure that the information collected under the investigations, which included probes of Trump associates and possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign, would survive the firings or reassignments of top law enforcement officials. Those officials included special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed eight days after Trump fired Comey in May 2017.
Andrew McCabe, who became acting director after Comey was fired, asked investigators to develop a plan to ensure evidence would be protected, said the person, who was not authorized to talk about those discussions publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press. A plan was then created, according to the person, who would not provide specifics. A second person familiar with the talks, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, also said the FBI discussed preserving evidence so that it would outlast any firing or effort to stymie the investigation.
A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment Tuesday.