HUNTINGTON, W.V. (CBSNewYork/CBS News) — Hours after it was revealed that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is using a grand jury in the Russia investigation, President Donald Trump fired back as he stood before thousands of his strongest supporters nearly 300 miles away in Huntington, West Virginia.
“There were no Russians on our campaign, there never were,” he said, adding, “The Russia story is a total fabrication.”
Trump appeared with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, who announced he is switching from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party. The Democratic Governors’ Association issued a response to Justice’s decision to switch parties, saying, “He deceived the voters of West Virginia when he ran as a Democrat eight months ago.”
But Justice said the Democratic Party “walked away” from him, before defending the president on the Russia controversy.
Today I will tell you with lots of prayers and with lots of thinking,” Justice told the crowd. “Today I tell you as West Virginians, I can’t help you anymore being a Democrat governor. So tomorrow, I will be changing my registration to Republican.”
The West Virginia governor — who seemingly took a shot at former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus by saying the country had a new chief of staff whose name people can pronounce in John Kelly — sidelined the Russia story.
“Have we not heard enough about the Russians?” Justice said. “I mean, to our God in heaven above, think about it! The stock market’s at 22,000. And this country has hope, and we’re on our way.”
Trump said the only reason Russia is a focus is because Democrats cannot accept his win.
“We didn’t win because of Russia. We won because of you,” Trump said.
“Have you seen any Russians in West Virginia or Ohio or Pennsylvania? Are there any Russians here tonight?” the president said.
As CBS2’s Valerie Castro reported, Trump said it was Hillary Clinton, whom he defeated in the 2016 presidential election, who should be investigated.
“What the prosecutor should be looking at are Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails,” he said.
The president has sternly and publicly criticized his own Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, for not going after the former secretary of state, even though Trump after the election told the New York Times he didn’t feel strongly about the issue and didn’t want to pursue charges against his former competitor.
The president also touted his administration’s desire to invest an additional $1 trillion in the nation’s infrastructure, and curb the number of legal immigrants allowed in the country. Trump said he wants to prohibit immigrants from going on welfare for five years, a line he gave at a previous rally in Iowa last month. But that’s already a provision in current law, something the White House said the president knew after that rally. It’s unclear why the president repeated the line.
As trouble swirls at home, Trump has taken to the skies and to the stage to speak to his supporters, blasting the “fake news” media, disparaging the “witch hunt” Russia investigation and touting his purported successes so far. Thursday’s rally marked his seventh since taking office in January.
As the president faces blowback on Russia, the GOP’s failure to pass health care legislation before the August recess, and even leaked calls in which Trump admitted to Mexico’s president that building a border wall was of secondary importance, he may need that support more than ever.
At the rally, the president’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump decried the “crazy story about Russia.”
“It’s so crazy, you have no idea,” she said.
Trump visited West Virginia last week as well, when he touted his electoral college win and criticized his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, before the Boy Scouts of America at a national jamboree. The head of the Boy Scouts, Mike Surbaugh, issued a statement apologizing for the speech.
Trump fueled even more controversy by claiming the head of the Boy Scouts called him to say the speech was the greatest his organization had ever heard. Later, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders conceded Trump only spoke to members of Boy Scout leadership in person after the speech.
CBS News learned earlier Thursday that Special Counsel Mueller is using a federal grand jury – in part to issue subpoenas to compel documents and information as part of his Russia investigation. The investigation includes Russian interference in the election, Russian hacking, Russian influence, and possible financial wrongdoing, individuals familiar with the matter told CBS News.
It is unclear whether a new separate grand jury has been impaneled by the Special Counsel, CBS News reported. It is possible Mueller is using an existing grand jury.