Donald Trump denied any collusion with Russia in the 2016 election but said on Thursday he spoke “for myself”, leaving open for the first time the possibility that some of his staff may have been involved.
The president claimed he was the target of the “greatest witch hunt” in US political history and complained that the campaign against him was dividing the country. But asked about the justice department decision to appoint a special counsel, Robert Mueller, to investigate contacts between his campaign and Russia, Trump appeared to shift his position from previous blanket denials.
“I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt. There is no collusion – certainly myself and my campaign – but I can always speak for myself and the Russians – zero,” he said at a joint press conference with the Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos.
Trump’s embattled presidency, which has invited increasingly frequent comparison with Richard Nixon and Watergate, passed a new landmark at the press conference when he was asked bluntly, in front of a foreign head of state, whether he recalled anything he had done that “might be worthy of criminal charges in these investigation or impeachment”.
“I think it is totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so,” Trump said.
Mueller is taking over a sprawling investigation into links between the Trump camp and Russia from the former FBI director James Comey, who the president fired abruptly on 9 May. It is expected to include scrutiny of Trump’s fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn, as well as his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and two former advisors, Carter Page and Roger Stone, and their contacts with Russian officials. All have denied collusion in Russian efforts to skew the election.
When asked whether he had urged Comey to shut down the Flynn investigation, Trump quickly replied: “No. No. Next question.”
He then embarked on a vitriolic attack on his former FBI director, claiming Comey had been “very unpopular with most people” who had had “a poor, poor performance in Congress”. He appeared to change his justification for the decision, pointing to a critical memo on Comey’s performance by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.
This was the original reason provided by the White House in the immediate wake of Comey’s dismissal, but two days later Trump revealed in a NBC interview: “It was set up a while ago.”
Senators emerging from a closed-door meeting with Rosenstein on Thursday said he had told them that he believed that the decision to fire the FBI director had already been made before he wrote his memo.
Dick Durbin of Illinois, the number two Democrat in the Senate, told reporters that Rosenstein “knew of the president’s decision to fire him and then he wrote his memo”. This was echoed by several other Senate Democrats, including Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jeff Merkley of Oregon. Merkley expressed particular frustration with Rosenstein, saying “he either has no understanding that his memo was used as a coverup or doesn’t want to take any accountability for it”.
Republicans were more hesitant to characterize Rosenstein’s statements inside the closed briefing. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana told reporters that at one point Rosenstein said “no decision is final until its finalized”.
Marco Rubio of Florida simply said, when asked if Rosenstein knew Comey would be fired when he wrote the memo: “I’m not sure if he addressed that with a level of clarity that most people wanted.”
At Thursday’s press conference, Trump said his administration “look forward to getting all these things behind us”.
“Believe me there is no collusion. Russia is fine,” the president said. He claimed that the FBI had spoiled its reputation in its investigations of the presidential campaigns in last year’s elections.
“I cherish the FBI. It’s special. All over the world wherever you go, the FBI is special,” he said, before adding: “The FBI has not had that special reputation with what happened in the campaign, what happened with the Clinton campaign, and even you could say, directly and indirectly with respect to the much more successful Trump campaign.”
Earlier in the day, Trump lashed out in a pair of tweets at Rosenstein’s decision to hire Mueller, a former FBI director, as special counsel.
“With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign and Obama administration, there was never a special councel [sic] appointed!” he wrote in the first tweet. He later corrected the spelling of counsel. “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”
Later in the day, Trump said the appointment of a special counsel was a “very negative thing” that “hurts our country terribly because it shows we’re a divided, mixed-up, not unified country”.
“It also happens to be a pure excuse for the Democrats, having lost an election that they should have easily won because of the electoral college being slanted so much in their way – that’s all this is,” Trump told television news anchors during a briefing on Thursday afternoon, according to transcripts posted by several attendees. “I think it shows division, and it shows that we’re not together as a country.”
The commentary marked a shift from the White House statement released after the announcement, which welcomed Mueller’s appointment as an opportunity to resolve the questions raised by his campaigns ties to Russia.
“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,” the Wednesday night statement said.
The decision by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, to appoint Mueller came after a week of stunning developments, including Trump’s abrupt dismissal of FBI director James Comey, who was leading the agency’s Russia investigation.
It also followed reports that Trump had asked Comey to shut down an investigation into his national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned in February after misleading the vice-president about his contacts with Russian officials.
As the White House scrambled to contain the fallout from a week of damaging developments, a fresh series of reports on Wednesday and Thursday raised more questions about the ties between Trump and Russia.
A report from the New York Times alleged that Flynn had told the president’s transition team weeks before being appointed that he was under federal investigation for working, in secret, as a paid lobbyist for Turkey.
Asked about that on Thursday, spokespeople for Mike Pence’s office issued a statement that read: “The vice-president stands by his comments in March upon first hearing the news regarding General Flynn’s ties to Turkey, and fully supports the president’s decision to ask for General Flynn’s resignation.” In March, Pence said about Flynn’s work for Turkey: “Hearing that story today was the first I heard of it.”
McClatchy on Wednesday reported that Flynn had intervened to stop a military plan to retake Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, with Syrian Kurdish forces – a move consistent with the wishes of Turkey.
On Thursday, Reuters reported that the Trump campaign had at least 18 undisclosed contacts with Russian operatives, several more than previously reported.
A bipartisan chorus of lawmakers have called on Comey to testify publicly in the wake of the report that Trump had pressured him to stop the investigation into Flynn, a request that Comey reportedly noted in a memo circulated with senior staff.
The Senate intelligence committee, one of two congressional committees investigating Russian interference, has asked Comey to testify before the committee in both public and private sessions. The committee has also sent a request to acting FBI director Andrew McCabe “seeking any notes or memorandum prepared by the former director regarding any communications he may have had with senior White House and Department of Justice officials related to investigations into Russia’s efforts”.
Special counsel is a position that exists under a statute that allows the attorney general or a deputy, if the attorney general is recused, to mount an independent investigation.
As special counsel, Mueller will command broad powers, including the power to subpoena documents and prosecute any crimes, independent of Congress. Calls on Capitol Hill for a special prosecutor in the investigation have percolated for months, but spiked after the firing of Comey, who was leading an FBI investigation into the matter. The independence of the investigation fell into question after the firing.
Democrats, who had called for a special counsel, welcomed Mueller’s appointment, along with a number of Republicans who have come to view the near daily revelations as an obstacle to their legislative agenda.
On a day of fast-moving developments, Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said a lawyer for Flynn had told the intelligence committee that his client would not comply with the panel’s subpoena for personal documents related to the committee’s own probe.
Flynn, through his lawyer, had earlier asked for immunity from “unfair prosecution” in exchange for agreeing to cooperate with the committee.
But the committee later seemed to correct Burr’s comments, saying it had not yet received a response from Flynn’s lawyer.
If Flynn were to refuse to honor the subpoena, that could leave him in contempt of Congress, but the Republicans on the Senate intelligence committee would decide how far to push Flynn to get him to comply.
“If he’s really saying the equivalent of ‘nuh-uh,’ it’s really hard to see how Burr can justify not treating that as contempt,” said Josh Chafetz, a Cornell University law professor and expert on congressional investigations. “That would be saying that, ‘Every subpoena we issue is completely optional.’”
“Subpoenas aren’t optional, so it’s contempt of Congress,” he added. Contempt of Congress has been a federal crime since the 19th century, Chafetz said.
Before the committee finds someone in contempt, “usually, there’s an attempt to negotiate and come to some sort of settlement”, said Chafetz.
Additional reporting by Tom McCarthy and Jon Swaine