Donald Trump again lashed out at the Justice Department’s decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate Russian meddling in a meeting with network news anchors and at a joint press conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Thursday afternoon.
‘Well, I respect the move but the entire thing has been a witch hunt and there is no collusion, certainly myself and my campaign – but I can only speak for myself – and the Russians,’ Trump said at the White House presser. ‘Zero.’
Several minutes later, he repeated the defense: ‘There was no collusion. Everybody, even my enemies, have said there is no collusion.’
At a luncheon with TV personalities, Trump bemoaned the appointment of ex-FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel saying it further divides the country – before smacking Democrats for what he viewed as their part.
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‘I believe it hurts our country terribly because it shows we’re divided, mixed up, not unified country and we have very important things to be doing right now,’ Trump told a number of network anchors who he held a lunch with at the White House.
He followed up with pointing a finger at those across the aisle.
‘It also happens to be a pure excuse for the Democrats having lost an election that they should have won because of the Electoral College being slanted so much in their way,’ Trump continued. ‘That’s all this is.’
He had started his day by blasting the decision on Twitter too.
‘With all the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel appointed!’ the president wrote, misspelling ‘counsel.’
He also dispatched his first use of the ‘witchhunt’ line.
Despite often pointing fingers at the media to explain his own White House’s mess, Trump Thursday broke bread with the likes of CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Fox News’ Bret Baier, amid nine days of heavy, and negative, news coverage.
Baier, however, suggested that the president seemed unfazed, not crushed or negatively impacted by recent events.
At the presser Trump came off less jovial and more solemn than his usual self, trying to pivot away from the trio of scandals to tout progress with job creation, immigration enforcement and military action against ISIS.
‘We have a lot of great things going on. So I hate to see anything that divides,’ Trump said. ‘I’m fine with whatever people want to do, but we have to get back to running this country really, really well.’
He hit on that theme during his discussion with the anchors too, saying he feared that the investigation would prevent him from getting work done on issues like trade, the military and nuclear proliferation.
‘All of the things that we have discussed today and I think this shows a very divided country,’ Trump told the reporters, in an on-the-record statement during an off-the-record lunch.
‘I think it shows division and it shows that we’re not together as a country and I think it’s a very, very negative thing and hopefully this can go quickly because we have to show unity if we’re going to do great things with respect to the rest of the world,’ Trump said.
On Wednesday, the deputy attorney general announced that he had signed off and made former FBI Director Robert Mueller a special counsel to carry forward the Russian investigation that the FBI had began.
‘As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know – there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity,’ Trump said in a statement released several hours after the news broke Wednesday night.
The Justice Department announced that Mueller would serve as special counsel, and would have ‘all appropriate resources’ to carry out the probe – during a week when Trump‘s White House was battered by disclosures about his contacts with the Russians and his firing of former FBI Director James Comey.
When asked Thursday about Comey, and whether he had askd him ‘in any shape or form to close or back down the investigation into Michael Flynn,’ the president gave WJLA’s Scott Thuman a curt answer.
‘No, no, next question,’ Trump replied.
Though there are still many questions swirling around about Comey’s abrupt dismissal, which were not helped by deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s trip to Capitol Hill Thursday.
Rosenstein, according to comments made by Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill to reporters on Capitol Hill, knew Comey was being shown the door, even before he wrote his memo that Trump initially pointed to when looking for a reason to ax the FBI chief.
‘He did acknowledge that he learned Comey would be removed prior to him writing his memo,’ McCaskill said.
The White House has spent weeks batting back efforts to install an independent outsider to lead the Russia probe, saying there are already sufficient probes.
As Special Counsel, Mueller will have a wide berth to follow the investigation where he sees fit, and set his own terms for how much information he wants to reveal or withhold.
Democrats in Congress have been pushing for an independent investigation that would be free from interference from Trump administration officials, as well as a special congressional commission that might probe deeper into charges that Russia tried to sway the election through hacking and other means.
It wasn’t immediately clear how or whether Trump’s contacts with Comey and reported efforts to either steer or inquire about the FBI’s Russia probes played a role in the decision.
The White House had repeatedly an independent investigation wasn’t needed.
Wednesday night, Trump said he hoped the investigation would be speedy.
‘I look forward to this matter concluding quickly,’ he said. ‘In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country.’
President George W. Bush appointed Mueller to lead the FBI in 2001. He was reappointed by President Obama 10 years later to serve an addition two years. He has a reputation among members of both parties for probity.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the move Wednesday evening, after getting grilled during his own confirmation hearings about under what circumstances he would be willing to appoint a special counsel.
‘In my capacity as acting Attorney General, I determined that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a Special Counsel to assume responsibility for this matter,’ Rosenstein said.
‘My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination. What I have determined is that based upon the unique circumstances, 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 continued.
Rosenstein added, ‘Each year, the career professionals of the U.S. Department of Justice conduct tens of thousands of criminal investigations and handle countless other matters without regard to partisan political considerations.’
He continued: ‘I have great confidence in the independence and integrity of our people and our processes. Considering the unique circumstances of this matter, however, I determined that a Special Counsel is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome.’
‘Our nation is grounded on the rule of law, and the public must be assured that government officials administer the law fairly. Special Counsel Mueller will have all appropriate resources to conduct a thorough and complete investigation, and I am confident that he will follow the facts, apply the law and reach a just result,’ he added.
By NIKKI SCHWAB, U.S. POLITICAL REPORTER FOR DAILYMAIL.COM and GEOFF EARLE, DEPUTY POLITICAL EDITOR FOR DAILYMAIL.COM