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Trump signs deals in Saudi Arabia, new revelations fly in Russia probe at home

In the US, two revelations — that a “person of interest” has been identified by those probing Russian meddling, and that Trump referred to former FBI director James Comey as a “nut job” — have overshadowed the president’s trip to Saudi Arabia.

world Updated: May 20, 2017 21:25 IST
Yashwant Raj
Yashwant Raj
Hindustan Times, Washington
Donald Trump,former FBI director James Comey,King Salman
Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman at a signing ceremony at the Saudi Royal Court in Riyadh on Saturday.(AFP)

Investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections and alleged collusion by Donald Trump’s campaign aides has identified a “significant person of interest” who is currently serving in the White House as a senior adviser to the president and is considered close to him.

The person has not been named.

This revelation by the Washington Post came just about the same time as the New York Times reported Trump described former FBI director James Comey as a “nut job” to Russian officials he met in the Oval Office last week, and told them his dismissal had taken the pressure off him.

“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump told Russia foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and ambassador Sergey Kislyak, according to a transcript of the conversation read out to The New York Times by an official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

“I’m not under investigation,” he added.

These explosive new revelations broke soon after Trump left for his first overseas tour as president. Though the White House reacted — not disputing either story vigorously — there was no response from Trump after he landed in Riyadh as he and his team plunged straight into the bilateral visit, starting with a grand reception by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman at the airport.

The two countries signed defence cooperation agreements worth $110 billion effective immediately and $350 billion over 10 years, according to the White House. There were other deals that were done by private sector firms separately.

The mood appeared upbeat in the travelling delegation — Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner was seen giving national security adviser HR McMaster a high-five, after a long and lavish lunch and just before the start of bilateral meetings.

A major highlight of the Saudi leg of the five-nation, nine-day trip is expected to be a speech by Trump on Sunday, in which he is expected to urge the Muslim for unity in the fight against radicalism, which he will frame as “battle between good and evil”. He will tone down his anti-Muslim rhetoric, according to the Associated Press, that was given access to a draft of the speech.

Back home in the US, the new revelations overshadowed the trip. Investigators now have a suspect — a person of interest is someone who is believed to be possibly involved in a criminal act but has not been arrested or formally charged. And evidence that Trump trying to shut down the Russia probe, for whatever reason, is mounting.

The person of interest is in the White House, ruling out Michael Flynn and campaign aides who are all long gone. Senior adviser Jared Kushner, attorney general Jeff Sessions and secretary of state Rex Tillerson are the currently serving officials with known prior contacts with Russians.

But the Washington Post said this new turn in the investigation did not indicate criminal charges were either necessarily near or imminent.

That call might be former FBI director Robert Mueller’s, who has been named special counsel to head the investigation of the Russian meddling, Trump campaign’s alleged collusion and anything else that could come up, given the broad authority at his disposal.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said in a statement: “As the president has stated before, a thorough investigation will confirm that there was no collusion between the campaign and any foreign entity.”

About the “nut job” comment to the Russians, Spicer said: “By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia. The investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”

He did not, significantly, dispute the account of the conversation given to the New York Times.

Trump’s meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak drew considerable attention, coming as it did just the day after the president had stunned the country firing Comey without a warning. Photos of the meeting were released by Moscow, and not the White House that controls media coverage of these events.

At the same meeting, Trump had also shared with the Russians highly classified intelligence about the Islamic State passed on to the United States by Israel, potentially endangering the life of the spy in the ranks of the terrorist outfit who had provided it.

First Published: May 20, 2017 21:14 IST