WASHINGTON -- It wasn't the weekend that President Donald Trump wanted: largely alone at the White House, irked by a pair of startling Russia headlines and baffled that he's not getting more credit for staying put during the partial government shutdown.
Trump surprised his aides by deciding, with just a few hours' notice, to call in to Jeanine Pirro's show on Fox News on Saturday night to push back against coverage of his presidency on multiple fronts, particularly published reports about his approach toward Russia.
Even then, the president avoided directly answering when Pirro asked whether he currently is or has ever worked for Russia. The question came after The New York Times reported that law enforcement officials began investigating, in 2017, whether Trump had been working on behalf of Russia against U.S. interests. The newspaper said the investigation came after the president's firing of FBI Director James Comey.
"I think it's the most insulting thing I've ever been asked," Trump told Pirro, a personal friend. "I think it's the most insulting article I've ever had written, and if you read the article you'll see that they found absolutely nothing."
Trump went on to assert that no president has taken a harder stance against Russia than he has.
"If you ask the folks in Russia, I've been tougher on Russia than anybody else, any other ... probably any other president, period, but certainly the last three or four presidents," he said.
White House aides expressed regret that the president did not more clearly and forcefully deny being a Russian agent when asked by the usually friendly Fox News host, according to three White House aides and Republicans close to the White House. The three spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss private conversations.
Trump also objected to a report in The Washington Post that said he went to extraordinary lengths to conceal details of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin even from high-ranking officials in his own administration. The report cited unnamed current and former U.S. officials.
In the Fox News interview, Trump questioned why the newspaper made such a "big deal" out of his discussions with Putin in Helsinki last summer. "Anybody could have listened to that meeting, that meeting is up for grabs."
The Russia reports came as Trump plays up his presence at the White House during the standoff with Democrats over funding for his long-promised wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. Large swaths of the government have been shut down for weeks while Trump and Democrats in Congress remain at an impasse over money for the border wall.
Trump has been trying to play up his presence at the White House during the standoff as a sign that it's Democrats who won't negotiate a deal.
"I like the symbol of me being here," Trump told Pirro. "I like that symbol because I am ready to sign. And they're not. And they're not."
Trump has expressed bafflement that he is not getting more credit for largely staying put during the shutdown. Aides acknowledge that the West Wing mishandled the first few days of the shutdown, when Trump remained out of sight, and are now trying to use the trappings of his office, with an Oval Office speech, a visit to the Texas border and the president's frequent tweets about waiting in the White House for Democrats to act.
By Sunday night, a blanket of snow in Washington seemed to provide a calming backdrop for the discontented president. He tweeted: "Wish I could share with everyone the beauty and majesty of being in the White House and looking outside at the snow filled lawns and Rose Garden. Really is something - SPECIAL COUNTRY, SPECIAL PLACE!"
Trump's claim that he's been tough on Russia was disputed Sunday by Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. The senator said almost all the sanctions on Russia arose not in the White House but in Congress, due to concerns by members of both parties about Moscow's actions. Warner accused the White House of being very slow to put in place the penalties.
The Times reported that FBI agents and some top officials became suspicious of Trump's ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign but didn't open an investigation at that time because they weren't sure how to approach such a sensitive probe.
Trump's behavior in the days around Comey's May 2017 firing helped trigger the counterintelligence part of the probe, according to the newspaper.
In the inquiry, counterintelligence investigators sought to evaluate whether Trump was a potential threat to national security. They also sought to determine whether Trump was deliberately working for Russia or had unintentionally been influenced by Moscow.
Trump tweeted early Saturday that the report showed that the FBI leadership "opened up an investigation on me, for no reason & with no proof" after he had fired Comey.
Robert Mueller took over the investigation when he was appointed special counsel soon after Comey's firing. The overall investigation is looking into Russian election interference and whether Trump's campaign coordinated with the Russians, as well as possible obstruction of justice by Trump. The Times says it's unclear whether Mueller is still pursuing the counterintelligence angle.
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told the Times he had no knowledge of the counterintelligence inquiry but said that since it was opened a year and a half ago and they hadn't heard anything, apparently "they found nothing."
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Lynn Berry contributed to this report.