WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump assailed the appointment of a special counsel as an unnecessary measure that divides the country and forcefully said there was no collusion between his campaign and Russians who interfered with the election.
“The entire thing has been a witch hunt,” Trump said Thursday during a White House news conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.
Trump said “there’s no collusion between, certainly, myself and my campaign, but I can only speak for myself, and the Russians — zero.”
On Wednesday, the Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to conduct an investigation into Russian meddling in the November election and Russian ties to Trump campaign officials.
The White House released a statement from Trump after the appointment was made, which said the probe would find there was no collusion between his campaign and a foreign entity.
But Trump lashed out at the appointment just hours later on his social media account, calling it the “single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
He doubled down on his emotional defense at an afternoon news conference at the White House. He said the appointment of a special counsel divides the country and impedes progress on his agenda for job creation and tax reform.
“I think we have a very divided country because of that and many other things,” Trump said.
Congressional Republican leaders, under pressure to act on the growing number of controversies swirling out of the White House, applauded the Justice Department decision to conduct an independent probe with a special counsel.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told a news conference the probe would determine the facts and whether criminal acts occurred.
“They are going to do their job, independently and thoroughly,” Ryan said. “We are going to continue to do our job.”
Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last week after he testified before the Senate about the agency’s ongoing investigation into the Russian involvement in the election, and ties between Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, and Russia.
Following the firing, news reports said Comey had detailed notes that showed Trump wanted the portion of the investigation that involved Flynn shut down.
At the news conference, Trump angrily denied that assertion: “No. No. Next question.”
The House and Senate, each conducting investigations into Russian involvement in the elections, plan to call Comey to testify before committees next week.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from decisions involving the Russian investigation after it was revealed he failed to disclose conversations he had with a Russian official before his appointment to the post.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made the special counsel appointment following continued developments and revelations about Russian ties coming out of the White House.
The day after Comey was fired, Trump shared classified intelligence with Russian officials at the White House. The information was gathered by another country, reported to be Israel, and pointed to a possible terrorist plot to use laptops to attack aircraft.
Rosenstein visits Senate
Meanwhile, Rosenstein appeared before the full Senate behind closed doors on Thursday in a prescheduled meeting with lawmakers about the firing of Comey.
The deputy attorney general told senators that a memo he wrote about Comey’s performance, cited by Trump as a reason for firing Comey, was written after Rosenstein knew that Trump had decided to fire the director, senators said.
The process for firing Comey will be part of the special counsel investigation, to determine whether there is a criminal obstruction of justice case to be pursued.
Rosenstein also told lawmakers that there would be no political checks on the special counsel or the independent investigation.
Democrats praised the naming of a special counsel, and Mueller, who served as FBI director for 12 years, as a positive development.
“Director Mueller is a career public servant who has shown integrity and commitment to upholding the law, without political agenda,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat and a former Nevada attorney general.
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., noted that the special counsel would not have to rely on the Trump administration and the Justice Department for resources, or be subordinate to Rosenstein.
House Democrats, including Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., called for an additional independent commission to look into various Trump controversies.
A letter circulated this week by Rep. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., criticized the release of intelligence information gathered by Israel and shared with Russia before information was given to allies.
She claimed the divulgence of information could harm future information sharing with Israel, the strongest ally of the United States in the Middle East.
Trump departs Friday on an eight-day foreign trip that includes stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel
Contact Gary Martin at 202-662-7390 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.