Trump denies report he asked top ally to oversee Cohen investigation

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCummings says Ivanka Trump not preserving all official communications Property is a fundamental right that is now being threatened 25 states could see severe flooding in coming weeks, scientists say MORE on Tuesday denied a report that he asked his former acting attorney general to put an ally of his in the U.S. attorney’s office in charge of a wide-ranging investigation into his former lawyer, Michael Cohen. 

Speaking to reporters at an Oval Office announcement on space policy, Trump dismissed a New York Times report published a short time earlier that said he asked then-acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to put U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in charge of the investigation in New York's Southern District. 

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“I don’t know who gave you that,” Trump said, calling the report "fake news."

The White House declined to comment on the Times report before it was published.

The Times reported that Trump requested Berman be put in charge of the investigation that has since resulted in jail time for Cohen, even though Berman recused himself from the probe.

Whitaker, whose tenure ended last week with the confirmation of Attorney General William Barr, knew Berman could not un-recuse himself, the Times reported. Trump allegedly grew frustrated with Whitaker and the appointee's inability to address his mounting legal problems.

"I have a lot of respect for Mr. Whitaker. I think he’s done a great job," Trump said Tuesday.

"He’s a very, very straight shooter," he added. "He’s exceptional. He’s a very fine man and he should be given a lot of thanks by the nation.”

The Department of Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupec told the Times in a statement that the White House has not asked Whitaker to interfere in investigations.

"Under oath to the House Judiciary Committee, then-acting Attorney General Whitaker stated that ‘at no time has the White House asked for nor have I provided any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel’s investigation or any other investigation,’ ” Kupec said. “Mr. Whitaker stands by his testimony.”

Whitaker appeared before the House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 8, where he clashed with Democrats. 

The Times reported that House Democrats are now looking into whether Whitaker perjured himself.

The Times cited the previously unreported request from Trump to Whitaker as one of several examples of the president seeking to influence the investigations into his presidency, his associates and his business interests.

Berman, who donated to Trump's 2016 campaign, recused himself from the investigation prior to an FBI raid of Cohen's hotel room and office in April. Trump had interviewed Berman personally for the U.S. attorney job in New York's Southern District in a break with traditional hiring practices for the role.

The Southern District's investigation into Cohen resulted in the longtime Trump ally pleading guilty to bank fraud, tax fraud and campaign finance violations. The latter charge was related to the payments made during the 2016 campaign to two women who alleged they had affairs with Trump.

Cohen has since been sentenced to three years in prison for those crimes, as well as a charge of lying to Congress.

Trump has accused his former attorney of lying to secure a more favorable prison sentence and labeled him a "rat."