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Trump Decries 'Witch Hunt' After Special Counsel Appointed

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) meets with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergei Kislyak, at the White House on May 10.
U.S. President Donald Trump (left) meets with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergei Kislyak, at the White House on May 10.

U.S. President Donald Trump has tweeted that he is facing "the single greatest witch hunt of a politician" in U.S. history, lashing out at the latest development in the controversy over suspected Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Trump made the remark on Twitter on May 18, a day after the U.S. Justice Department appointed a special counsel to oversee a probe into Moscow's alleged meddling as well as possible collusion between Russia and his campaign.

In a separate tweet a few minutes earlier, Trump said "there was never a special councel (sic) appointed" to investigate what he claimed were "illegal acts" carried out by his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton's campaign and the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

The president did not provide any details about those allegations.

The FBI and Congress are conducting separate investigations into the alleged Russian interference in the election and into whether associates of Trump colluded with Russia to sway the November 8 vote in his favor.

The Justice Department's appointment of former FBI chief Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the agency's probe, came amid rising demands by U.S. lawmakers for an independent enquiry.

The move was welcomed by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.

Outsider Appointment

On May 17, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said he decided to appoint Mueller because it was in the public interest to have an outsider -- not because he believes "crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted."

"A special counsel is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome" of the investigation,” Rosenstein said.

"The public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command," he also said.

A special counsel is considered independent because he has the authority to conduct an investigation with a staff of his own choosing and without any requirement to consult with or inform the Justice Department and White House about the course of the investigation. The special counsel also is authorized to prosecute any suspected crimes unearthed by the investigation.

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller

Suspicions that the White House may have tried to influence the Justice Department's own investigation of the Russian matter, which the FBI began last year, arose when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey a week ago.

Further questions arose on May 16 when reports surfaced that Trump had asked Comey during his first weeks in office to end an investigation into Russia's ties with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Comey wrote about Trump's request as well as other conversations he had with Trump in memos that were widely reported by media on May 16. The White House denied Comey's account of his conversation with Trump about Flynn.

Several congressional leaders said Trump's request to quash the Flynn investigation may have amounted to obstruction of justice -- a criminal offense in the United States.

By the evening of May 17, three congressional committees had demanded to see Comey's memos and were seeking to have Comey testify about his experiences with Trump.

Congressional leaders praised the decision to appoint a special counsel -- something Democrats have been urging since last year, with many Republicans joining the chorus in recent days.

"I believe Mueller will be independent, he will be thorough, and he will be fair and he's not going to be easily swayed," said Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, which is also investigating the Russian matter.

Republican Jason Chaffez, chairman of the House oversight panel, said Mueller was a "great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted."

'Undisclosed Russia Contacts'

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded earlier this year that Russia interfered in the election, and the FBI's investigation was building on those findings. Moscow has repeatedly denied any interference.

In another development on May 18, the Reuters news agency reported that advisers to Trump's election campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with links to the Kremlin in at least 18 calls and electronic messages during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race.

Citing current and former U.S. officials it did not name, Reuters reported on May 18 that the previously undisclosed exchanges were part of the material being reviewed by investigators probing Russia's alleged meddling in the election and any Trump campaign ties.

The 18 phone calls and e-mails took place between April and November 2016, according to the news agency.

Six were calls between Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and advisers to Trump, including Flynn.

Contacts between the two accelerated after the election as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The White House and advisers to Trump's campaign have confirmed four meetings between Kislyak and Trump advisers during that time.

There were no immediate reactions from the White House, Flynn, or Russia to the Reuters report.

The agency quoted its sources as saying there was no evidence of wrongdoing or collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia in the communications reviewed so far, but the disclosure could increase the pressure on the president and his aides to provide a full account of exchanges with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP