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Trump blasts Russia probe as 'witch hunt'

It’s a ‘very negative thing’ for country, president says

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Photographs by AP/ANDREW HARNIK

President Donald Trump, followed by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, arrives for their joint news conference Thursday at the White House. Trump, who makes his ÿrst overseas trip today to Saudi Arabia, called the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the investigation of possible Russian meddling in last year’s election “a very, very negative thing.”

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump on Thursday denounced the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his campaign's possible ties with Russia, repeatedly calling it a "witch hunt" that "hurts our country terribly."

His fellow Republicans, meanwhile, expressed hope that the move would restore some calm to the capital plunged into near chaos over recent events.

A day after appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller to lead the independent probe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein testified in private 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 Trump had shared secrets with top Russian diplomats 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 Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. "I do think that the special prosecutor provides a sense of calm and confidence perhaps for the American people, which is incredibly important."

[INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: Events leading up to Comey’s firing]

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."

He leapt to make the point again at a joint news conference with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, describing the development as a distraction.

"I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt," he said, insisting there had been "no collusion" between his campaign and Russia.

[PRESIDENT TRUMP: Timeline, appointments, executive orders + guide to actions in first 100 days]

"I'm fine with whatever people want to do," he added. "But we have to go back to running this country really, really well."

The president then pivoted to listing what he called the achievements of his administration, from creating jobs to restoring America's standing in the world, and noted he was embarking today on the trip to the Middle East.

Trump reiterated his vow to stamp out the drug trade and to build a wall on the border with Mexico. Standing next to Santos in the East Room, Trump noted that coca leaf production in his country was at record levels, despite Colombia's efforts to crack down on drug trafficking.

Santos looked for areas of common ground, noting the cooperation between Colombia and the United States in fighting drug trafficking. "We believe in the same principles of freedom, democracy and the rule of law," he said.

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 the Trump campaign.

Despite initially opposing appointment of an independent counsel, House Speaker Paul Ryan said Thursday 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."

Trump, after issuing a measured statement when the news first broke Wednesday evening, turned to Twitter on Thursday morning to vent.

"This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" Trump wrote.

"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.

Trump is leaving today for his first foreign trip, to the Mideast and beyond, which aides hope can have the effect of refocusing a White House in disarray.

Rosenstein testifies

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, who served 12 years 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 on Thursday to take the step of appointing a special prosecutor, but they were left praising him instead before his private briefing began.

"This was a very good first step. Mr. Rosenstein has done the right thing," Senate Minority Leader Charles 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."

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said that Rosenstein told the senators that he knew on May 8, the day before Comey was fired, that Trump was going to fire the FBI director. He also told them that he was not pressured into writing his memo.

"He learned the president's decision to fire him and then he wrote his memo with his rationale," Durbin said.

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.

On a day of fast-moving developments, the House Intelligence Committee announced that it, too, had asked for documents, in this case from the FBI and the Justice Department.

The No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said he is supportive of investigations in Congress but expressed concern about the "proliferation" of hearings. "I hope that we don't inadvertently trip up or damage the independent investigation of the special counsel," he said.

There was confusion during the day surrounding Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser who has emerged as a central figure because of his own ties to Russia, which led to his dismissal early on in the Trump administration. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr indicated at one point that Flynn was resisting the committee's document subpoenas, but Burr later clarified that he hadn't actually heard from Flynn's lawyer to that effect and he would welcome "their willingness to cooperate." It was not clear what caused the mix-up.

Ryan: Enough drama

Eager to move past distractions, Ryan said the many layers of controversy facing Trump will not impede House Republicans from pursuing their agenda.

"It's always nice to have less drama," he acknowledged during a news conference. "I realize there's a lot in the media these days. That doesn't seize up Congress. That doesn't stop us from doing our jobs.

He gave tax legislation, a major GOP priority, as an example, vowing it would not slip into next year.

"Drama is not helpful in getting things done," Ryan said, "but we're still getting things done. ... I feel very comfortable we'll meet this goal."

Asked about private chatter among some Republicans that Vice President Mike Pence would be a better chief executive than Trump, Ryan projected disgust.

"I'm not going to give credence to that," he said. "I'm not even going to comment on that. There's not even a point making a comment on that."

Attention on Capitol Hill quickly returned Thursday to Comey's firing, as committees awaited a response to invitations for him to testify.

"Mr. Comey was central to the events of the past few weeks," Schumer said Thursday morning on the Senate floor. "We still need to hear from him."

Comey has received invitations to testify from the Senate Intelligence Committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He has not stated publicly whether he will appear.

The House Intelligence Committee on Thursday became the latest panel to request documents from the Justice Department about the Russia investigation and Comey's conversations with Trump. The Senate Intelligence Committee, Senate Judiciary Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have already made similar requests.

"We're going to keep doing our jobs -- keep our Russia investigations going," said Ryan, who had rejected calls for a special counsel.

The Senate Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena last week to force Flynn to turn over documents relevant to its Russia probe. Burr stated Thursday that Flynn's attorneys had not yet "indicated their intentions" but expressed hopes they would cooperate.

"Michael Flynn has not cooperated with the committee up to this point," Burr told reporters on Capitol Hill. "We have not gotten the definitive answer."

Congressional committees have sent multiple requests to the FBI and the White House to obtain any records of Trump's conversations with Comey, as well as other Russia-related documents.

Another pressing concern for lawmakers is the search for Comey's replacement.

"The next FBI director must be someone who is nonpartisan, independent, fearless and unimpeachable," Schumer said Thursday, ruling out a politician for the job. "Anyone who suggests a lack of impartiality should not be considered."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not mention any of these issues during his morning remarks on the Senate floor, focusing instead on health care.

"The entire Senate Republican Conference has been at work debating ideas and making progress," McConnell said. "I hope our friends on the other side of the aisle will join us in bringing some relief to all these families who desperately need it."

Information for this article was contributed by Erica Werner, Darlene Superville, Deb Riechmann, Eileen Sullivan, Matthew Daly and Mary Clare Jalonick of The Associated Press; by Elise Viebeck, Karoun Demirjian, Sean Sullivan, David Weigel, Sari Horwitz and Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post; and by Mark Landler and Glenn Thrush of The New York Times.

A Section on 05/19/2017

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein arrives Thursday on Capitol Hill in Washington for a closed meeting with senators a day after appointing former...

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