President Trump said he had no intention of firing Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating his administration's ties to Russia, a probe that he has repeatedly attacked as a "witch hunt."
Trump, speaking to reporters at his Bedminster, N.J., golf resort after a meeting with advisors Thursday, once again insisted that there had been no collusion between his campaign and Russian leaders, but cooled his rhetoric attacking Mueller and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions.
"I haven't given it any thought," he said, when asked whether he might fire Mueller, a subject that friends and advisors have said he repeatedly raised earlier this summer.
"You say, 'Oh, I'm going to dismiss him.' No, I'm not dismissing anybody. I mean, I want them to get on with the task."
As for Sessions, Trump gave a tepid endorsement after weeks of publicly dressing down the attorney general.
"It is what it is. It's fine," Trump said of their relationship. "He's working hard on the border."
The remarks on Thursday represented another shift for Trump, who last month seemed on the brink of a historic confrontation with Congress and his own Justice Department over the Russia probe.
Trump repeatedly excoriated Sessions for his decision to step aside from supervising the Russia investigation, making it clear that he blamed the attorney general for the fact that he was facing the investigation by Mueller and his team. He called Sessions "very WEAK" on prosecuting leakers and in pursuing an investigation against his former rival, Hillary Clinton.
The barrage of public criticism was widely seen as an effort by Trump to pressure Sessions to resign, and it prompted warnings from conservatives and from the Senate not to fire Sessions or Mueller.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned at one point that Trump would not get another attorney general confirmed this year.
Trump on Thursday repeated that Mueller would find no evidence that anyone connected to his campaign cooperated with a Russian scheme to influence the election.
"They're investigating something that never happened. There was no collusion between us and Russia," he said. "We have an investigation of something that never took place, and all I say is work with them."
As he has several times before, however, Trump made clear that he continues to see the Russia investigation as a challenge to the legitimacy of his election.
"There's no — there is no collusion. You know why? Because I don't speak to Russians. Look, I won because I suppose I was a much better candidate than her," he said, referring to Clinton. "I won because I went to Wisconsin. I went to Michigan. I won Pennsylvania. I fought a smart battle. That's why I won. I didn't win because of Russia."
Alarmed about Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, President Obama in December imposed new sanctions on Russia. This month, Congress overwhelmingly passed a law to tie Trump's hands and prevent him from weakening those sanctions. In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the U.S. to reduce its diplomatic staff in Russia by hundreds, primarily Russian contract employees.
Shortly after Putin's announcement, the State Department called the decision "a regrettable and uncalled for act."
Trump took more than a week and a half to offer his own response. When he did, it was to make light of the matter and say he wasn't concerned.
"I want to thank him because we're trying to cut down our payroll," he said. "We're going to save a lot of money."
"There's no real reason for them to go back," Trump said, referring to the diplomats. "I greatly appreciate the fact that we've been able to cut our payroll of the United States."
Trump also commented on the FBI's search last month of the Virginia home of Paul Manafort, his onetime campaign manager.
"I thought it was a very, very strong signal, or whatever," Trump said when asked about the raid, adding that he had not spoken to the attorney general or FBI about it. He also said he had not spoken to Manafort in "a long time."
"To do that early in the morning, whether or not it was appropriate, you'd have to ask them," Trump said, referring to the search.
Trump described Manafort as "a very decent man" but added a pointed comment about Manafort's long record of business dealings with international clients, some of them aligned with the Kremlin:
"He's like a lot of other people. Probably makes consultant fees from all over the place, who knows."
Trump also seemed to acknowledge that some of his associates could be in legal trouble. Both Manafort and Michael Flynn, his former national security director, belatedly registered as foreign agents after information surfaced that they had represented foreign interests. And his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has amended his disclosure filings about contacts with foreign officials.
"Did they do something wrong because they didn't file the right document or whatever?" Trump said, not naming any specific individuals. "Perhaps. You'll have to look at them. But I guarantee you this, probably a lot of people in Washington did the same thing."
Trump also distinguished between national security leaks and those coming from inside his fractious White House.
Leaks of classified material are a serious problem, he said. "And then you have the leaks where people want to love me and they're all fighting for love," he said. "They're not very important. But — actually, I'm somewhat honored by them."