- Trump says appointment of special counsel 'hurts country'
- President says 'no collusion with Russia'
- Lindsey Graham says Russia probe 'seems to be criminal'
- Trump says he is target of 'greatest witch hunt in history!'
- Flynn 'discussed establishing back-channel between Trump and Putin
- Trump's White House 'suffering low morale
President Donald Trump declared himself the victim of the “greatest witch hunt” in US political history as it emerged his campaign advisers had 18 contacts in seven months with Russian officials before the election.
Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser, is said to have discussed setting up a back channel for Mr Trump to communicate with Vladimir Putin once he was president.
The disclosures were made as the White House was left reeling by the appointment of an independent special counsel to investigate Russia’s role in the US election.
Mr Trump was given no advance notice of the decision by his own deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller to the role.
The president’s initial reaction was described as “extremely measured” and he told senior staff in the White House, some of whom are now expected to hire lawyers, that they had nothing to hide.
Lindsey Graham, the senior Republican senator, said he expected Mr Mueller to pursue the Russia inquiry as a “criminal investigation”. Mr Trump later said he was being victimised. He wrote on Twitter: “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign and Obama administration, there was never a special councel (sic) appointed!
“This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
The decision to appoint Mr Mueller came a week after Mr Trump fired James Comey as FBI director.
According to Mr Comey the president urged him to drop inquiries into Mr Flynn.
Asked on Thursday if he had done anything as president that might warrant criminal charges or impeachment Mr Trump said: “It’s totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so.”
Mr Trump was also asked if he tried to get Mr Comey to drop the investigation into Mr Flynn. He replied: “No. No. Next question.”
At a press conference with Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, Mr Trump also said he “respected” the move to appoint a special prosecutor but he believed it “divides the country”.
Mr Flynn, to whom Mr Trump has been unswervingly loyal, was increasingly at the centre of controversy.
US officials told Reuters there were at least 18 calls or emails between Trump campaign advisers, including Mr Flynn, and Russian officials or Kremlin associates between April and November 2016. After the election Mr Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak were said to have discussed setting up a communications “back channel” for Mr Trump and Mr Putin, Reuters reported.
That would have bypassed the US national security bureaucracy, which both sides considered hostile to improved relations.
According to another report Mr Flynn was appointed national security adviser despite him having told the White House he was already under FBI investigation for working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey, receiving over $500,000, during the election.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress welcomed the appointment of Mr Mueller, who was made FBI director by President George W Bush one week before the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Paul Ryan, the Republican House Speaker, said it would help the party to concentrate on election pledges, including tax reform, although investigations into Russian election meddling by committees in both the House and Senate would also continue.
Trump 'can look after himself'
President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, when asked if he could offer Mr Trump any advice, said: "He can look after himself."
Trump: 'the entire thing has been a witch-hunt'
Mr Trump is immediately asked what he thinks of the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russia ties:
I respect the move but the entire thing has been a witch-hunt.
I think it divides the country.
There is no collusion with Russia.
Mr Trump quickly stressed the achievements of his administration and says "we have to get back to running the country":
We've had tremendous success - you look at our job numbers.
We've made tremendous progress.
Trump 'very close' to announcing new FBI director
The US president says he is "very close" to announcing a new FBI director amid reports that Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic Connecticut senator, was the favourite for the position.
Mr Lieberman, who is widely respected by both parties, said he had a "good meeting" with the president on Thursday.
Rod Rosenstein knew Comey would be fired before he sent his memo
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has apparently told senators that he knew FBI Director James Comey was going to be fired even before he wrote a memo that provided a basis for Mr Comey's dismissal, AP reports.
The White House pointed to Mr Rosenstein's memo last week as justification for Mr Trump's abrupt decision to dismiss Mr Comey. In the memo Mr Rosenstein criticised Mr Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
But Mr Trump himself has already said that he was going to fire Mr Comey regardless - and the revelation, announced by Claire McCaskill, the Democratic senator, appeared to bolster that version of events.
Ms McCaskill said: "He did acknowledge that he learned Comey would be removed prior to him writing his memo."
Russia probe 'moving to a criminal investigation'
Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator, said Russia probe seemed to be moving from counter-intelligence to a criminal investigation.
"I think the shock to the body is it's now considered a criminal investigation," he said.
Trump: 'probe is pure excuse for the Democrats having lost an election'
Mr Trump has told US media oulets that the appointment of a special counsel "hurts our country terribly" as it shows how divided the United States.
"I believe it hurts our country terribly, because it shows we're a divided, mixed-up, not-unified country," Mr Trump told news outlets.
He said the counsel was a "pure excuse for the Democrats having lost an election".
Michael Flynn 'discussed establishing back-channel between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to bypass national security bureaucracy'
Michael Flynn discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin that could be used to bypass national security bureaucracy, it has been reported.
Mr Flynn and other advisers to the president's election campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the 2016 presidential race, current and former US officials familiar with the exchanges told Reuters.
Mr Trump reacted angrily to the latest allegations on Thursday, tweeting:
"With all the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special coucel (SIC) appointed!"
Mr Trump added: "This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!"
The previously undisclosed interactions form part of the record now being reviewed by FBI and congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the US presidential election and contacts between Mr Trump’s campaign and Russia.
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
Six of the previously undisclosed contacts described to Reuters were phone calls between Sergei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States, and Trump advisers, including Mr Flynn, Mr Trump’s first national security adviser, three current and former officials said.
Conversations between Mr Flynn and Mr Kislyak accelerated after the November 8 vote as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the US national security bureaucracy, which both sides considered hostile to improved relations, four current US officials said.
In January, the Trump White House initially denied any contacts with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign. The White House and advisers to the campaign have since confirmed four meetings between Kislyak and Trump advisers during that time.
The people who described the contacts to Reuters said they had seen no evidence of wrongdoing or collusion between the campaign and Russia in the communications reviewed so far.
But the disclosure could increase the pressure on Mr Trump and his aides to provide the FBI and Congress with a full account of interactions with Russian officials and others with links to the Kremlin during and immediately after the 2016 election.
The White House did not respond to requests for comment. Mr Flynn's lawyer declined to comment. In Moscow, a Russian foreign ministry official declined to comment on the contacts and referred Reuters to the Trump administration.
Separately, a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington said: “We do not comment on our daily contacts with the local interlocutors.”
The 18 calls and electronic messages took place between April and November 2016 as hackers engaged in what US intelligence concluded in January was part of a Kremlin campaign to discredit the vote and influence the outcome of the election in favor of Mr Trump over his Democratic challenger, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Those discussions focused on mending US-Russian economic relations strained by sanctions imposed on Moscow, cooperating in fighting Islamic State in Syria and containing a more assertive China, the sources said.
Members of the Senate and House intelligence committees have gone to the CIA and the National Security Agency to review transcripts and other documents related to contacts between Trump campaign advisers and associates and Russian officials and others with links to Putin, people with knowledge of those investigations told Reuters.
The US Justice Department said on Wednesday it had appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate alleged Russian meddling in the US presidential campaign and possible collusion between Mr Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Mr Mueller will now take charge of the FBI investigation that began last July. Mr Trump and his aides have repeatedly denied any collusion with Russia.
'It’s rare to have that many phone calls to foreign officials'
In addition to the six phone calls involving Mr Kislyak, the communications described to Reuters involved another 12 calls, emails or text messages between Russian officials or people considered to be close to Putin and Trump campaign advisers.
One of those contacts was by Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch and politician, according to one person with detailed knowledge of the exchange and two others familiar with the issue.
It was not clear with whom Mr Medvedchuk was in contact within the Trump campaign but the themes included US-Russia cooperation, the sources said. Putin is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter.
Medvedchuk denied having any contact with anyone in the Trump campaign.
"I am not acquainted with any of Donald Trump's close associates, therefore no such conversation could have taken place," he said in an email to Reuters.
In the conversations during the campaign, Russian officials emphasised a pragmatic, business-style approach and stressed to Trump associates that they could make deals by focusing on common economic and other interests and leaving contentious issues aside, the sources said.
Veterans of previous election campaigns said some contact with foreign officials during a campaign was not unusual, but the number of interactions between Trump aides and Russian officials and others with links to Mr Putin was exceptional.
“It’s rare to have that many phone calls to foreign officials, especially to a country we consider an adversary or a hostile power,” Richard Armitage, a Republican and former deputy secretary of state, told Reuters.
Beyond Mr Medvedchuk and Mr Kislyak, the identities of the other Putin-linked participants in the contacts remain classified and the names of Trump advisers other than Mr Flynn have been “masked” in intelligence reports on the contacts because of legal protections on their privacy as American citizens.
However, officials can request that they be revealed for intelligence purposes.
US and allied intelligence and law enforcement agencies routinely monitor communications and movements of Russian officials.
After Vice President Mike Pence and others had denied in January that Trump campaign representatives had any contact with Russian officials, the White House later confirmed that Mr Kislyak had met twice with then-Senator Jeff Sessions, who later became attorney general.
Mr Kislyak also attended an event in April where Trump said he would seek better relations with Russia. Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, also attended that event in Washington.
In addition, Kislyak met with two other Trump campaign advisers in July on the sidelines of the Republican convention.
Mr Trump fired Mr Flynn in February after it became clear that he had falsely characterised the nature of phone conversations with Mr Kislyak in late December - after the November 8 election and just after the Obama administration announced new sanctions on Russia.
Mr Flynn offered to testify to Congress in return for immunity from prosecution but his offer was turned down by the House intelligence committee.