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May 27, 2017
Friday, May 19, 2017

Trump decries ‘witch-hunt’ as tensions emerge over investigator

US President Donald Trump waves as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.
US President Donald Trump waves as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.
US President Donald Trump waves as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington.

US president denies claims by fired ex-FBI director James Comey

WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump yesterday denied asking fired FBI Director James Comey to back off his agency’s investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and the role played by former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Asked whether he urged Comey to ease up on the Flynn investigation, Trump said at a press conference, “No, no,” before ordering the media to move onto the “next question.”

Earlier this week there were several news reports that Trump made the request regarding Flynn during a February meeting in the Oval Office — these accounts were based on a memo Comey drafted at the time, the contents of which were described by officials familiar with the memo. Trump fired Comey last week.

At the press conference, the president also reiterated his claim that the Justice Department’s decision to appoint a special counsel to look into possible collusion with Russia was “a witch-hunt,” saying he had never colluded with the Russians and exposing tensions among Republicans.

“I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch-hunt, and there is no collusion between — certainly myself and my campaign — but I can only speak for myself and the Russians. Zero,” Trump said, at a joint press conference yesterday afternoon with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. “Believe me, there’s no collusion. Russia is fine, but whether it’s Russia or anybody else, my total priority, believe me, is the United States of America.”

Earlier in the day, Trump had taken to Twitter to denounce the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate his campaign’s ties with Russia, saying the move “hurts our country terribly.” Even as he erupted anew and tensions were laid bare, fellow Republicans expressed hopes the move would restore some calm to a capital plunged into chaos.

A day after appointing Mueller to lead the independent probe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appeared behind closed doors before the full Senate. Lawmakers of both parties sought to question him about Trump’s firing last week of FBI Director James Comey, which was followed by news that the US president had shared secrets with the Russians and tried to stop Comey from investigating former presidential adviser Michael Flynn.

“We’ll get rid of the smoke and see where the actual issues lie,” said Republican Senator Tim Scott. “I do think that the special prosecutor provides a sense of calm and confidence perhaps for the American people, which is incredibly important.”

Trump strongly disagreed. The appointment, he said in a briefing with news anchors, “hurts our country terribly.” He said it “shows we’re a divided, mixed-up, not unified country” and is “a very, very negative thing,” ignoring the irony of his repeated criticism of Democratic lawmakers.

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that Mueller has been given sweeping power to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, including potential links between Moscow and Trump campaign associates.

Despite initially opposing appointment of an independent counsel, House Speaker Paul Ryan made a U-turn, saying that the development “helps assure people and the Justice Department that they’re going to go do their jobs independently and thoroughly, which is what we’ve called for all along.”

But Trump, after issuing a measured statement when the news first broke Wednesday evening, allowed his resentment to burst forth yesterday in angry morning tweets.

“This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” Trump wrote, ignoring impeachment efforts and blistering verbal attacks on previous presidents and other political leaders.

“With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!” he added later, without providing examples.

The president’s frustration has been building since he abruptly fired Comey. Trump said he acted because Comey, who had been overseeing the Russia investigation, “wasn’t doing a good job” leading the agency, calling him a “showboat” and a “grandstander.” But a report in the New York Times this week that Trump allegedly asked Comey to end the investigation undercut the president’s rationale and has led to accusations from some in Congress that Trump was attempting to obstruct justice. Another report, in The Washington Post, that Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian diplomats in a meeting in the Oval Office last week has amplified concerns about the president’s dealings with Moscow.

During a speech at the Coast Guard Academy commencement Wednesday, an aggrieved Trump aired his mounting frustrations, declaring that “no politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly. You can’t let them get you down, can’t let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams.”

Critics responded to his claims of unfairness by tweeting pictures of former US presidents who were killed while in office, including Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.

Trump leaves the US today for his first foreign trip, to the Middle East and beyond, which aides hope can have the effect of refocusing a White House in disarray.

The president’s tweets and comments to the TV anchors drew little reaction from fellow Republicans, who instead joined Democrats in heaping praise on Mueller, a long-time respected lawman who served under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, preceding Comey as head of the FBI. Now Mueller will have nearly unfettered access to witnesses and information, and the ability to bring criminal charges.

His appointment raises the stakes dramatically on the long-simmering allegations that Russia meddled in the 2016 election and had connections with members of the Trump campaign.

Democratic senators had been prepared to press Rosenstein yesterday to take the step of appointing a special prosecutor, but were left praising him instead before his closed-door briefing began.

“This was a very good first step. Mr. Rosenstein has done the right thing,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said on the Senate floor. “I now have significantly greater confidence that the investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead.”

Despite the appointment, at least three congressional committees are continuing their investigations, leading to some turf warfare and sniping as the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee both sought to lay claim to testimony from Comey, while the House Oversight Committee also hoped to hear from the former director.

Herald with AP, Reuters, Washington Post”

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