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Special counsel Mueller named to probe Trump-Russia ties

Special counsel Mueller named to probe Trump-Russia ties
The former FBI Director James Comey talks with his predecessor Robert Mueller at the Justice Department in this file photo. AP file photo

Special counsel Mueller named to probe Trump-Russia ties

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller Wednesday (May 17) as a special counsel to oversee the federal investigation into allegations that Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign collaborated to influence the 2016 presidential election, giving Mr Mueller sweeping powers and the authority to prosecute any crimes uncovered in the probe.

It was a concession by the Trump administration, which had resisted calls from Democrats to turn the investigation over to outside counsel. The White House counsel’s office was alerted only after the order appointing Mr Mueller was signed.

In a written statement, Mr Trump insisted anew that there were no nefarious ties between his campaign and Russia.

``A thorough investigation will confirm what we already know _ there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity,’’ he declared. ``I look forward to this matter concluding quickly.’’

The appointment of a special counsel ramps up the pressure on Mr Trump and his associates. Mr Mueller’s broad mandate gives him not only oversight of the Russia probe, but also ``any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.’’ That could well include the firing last week of FBI Director James Comey.

Republicans have largely stood behind Trump as the FBI and congressional investigations into Russia’s election meddling intensified. But GOP lawmakers have grown increasingly anxious after Mr Trump fired Mr Comey, who had been leading the bureau’s probe - and after Mr Comey associates said he had notes from a meeting in which Mr Trump asked him to shut down the investigation into the Russia ties of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Early reaction from Congress was generally positive to the appointment of Mr Mueller.

Democrats said it was not a moment too soon.

``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 Mr Elijah Cummings of Maryland, top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. ``And he is a career man, a career FBI kind of guy, and I think that’s a good thing.’’

Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chairman of the oversight panel, said Mr Mueller was a ``great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted.’’

House Speaker Paul Ryan was more muted and formal: ``I welcome his role at the Department of Justice. The important ongoing bipartisan investigation in the House will also continue.’’

Fellow Republican Peter King of New York was more leery: ``I’m worried with all special counsels because there’s no control over them and they can abuse their power.’’

In the 1990s, Democrats complained that independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who investigated President Bill Clinton, overstepped his authority.

Earlier Wednesday, Mr Trump gave no indication of the announcement to come in a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy.

He made no reference to the controversies about Russia or the Russia ties for fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn or Mr Comey’s dismissal. But he complained bitterly that about criticism of his still-young presidency.

``No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly,’’ he said. ``You can’t let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams. ... I guess that’s why we won. Adversity makes you stronger. Don’t give in, don’t back down. ... And the more righteous your fight, the more opposition that you will face.’’

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, three congressional committees, all led by Republicans, confirmed they wanted to hear from Mr Comey. Congressional investigators have been seeking Mr Comey’s memos on his meeting with Mr Trump, as well as documents from the Justice Department related to his firing.

The latest political storm, coupled with the still-potent fallout from Mr Trump’s recent disclosure of classified information to Russian diplomats, overshadowed all else in the capital and beyond. Stocks fell sharply on Wall Street as investors worried that the latest turmoil in Washington could hinder Mr Trump’s pro-business agenda.

Interest was hardly limited to the US No less a commentator than Russia’s Vladimir Putin called the dramatic charges swirling around Mr Trump evidence of ``political schizophrenia spreading in the US.’’ He offered to furnish a ``record’’ of the Mr Trump-diplomats meeting in the Oval Office if the White House desired it.

There was no word on what that record might entail, a question many were likely to raise in light of Mr Trump’s recent warning to Mr Comey that he had ``better hope’’ there were no tapes of a discussion they’d had.

The White House disputed Mr Comey’s account of the February conversation concerning Mr Flynn, but did not offer specifics. Several members of Congress said that if Mr Trump did suggest that Comey ``let this go’’ regarding Mr Flynn’s Russian contacts, it was probably just a joke, light banter.

Questions about Mr Trump’s conduct have been mounting for weeks, most recently with the two explosive revelations - that in February the president pressed Mr Comey to drop a federal investigation into Mr Flynn’s contacts with Russia and that he disclosed classified information to the senior Russian officials last week.’

Both allegations came from anonymous sources, and the White House was quick to denounce the leaks and deny any impropriety, insisting the president never tried to squelch the Mr Flynn investigation nor did he make inappropriate disclosures to the Russians.

On Capitol Hill, Mr Comey was clearly the man in demand, with three committees working to seat him at their witness tables.

The House oversight committee set a May 24 hearing on whether Mr Trump interfered in the FBI probe, and invited Mr Comey to testify.

The Senate intelligence committee invited Mr Comey to appear in both open and closed sessions. It also asked acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe to give the committee any notes Mr Comey might have made regarding discussions he had with White House or Justice Department officials about Russia’s efforts to influence the election.

Top members of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked the FBI to provide any Mr Comey memos and asked the White House to turn over any audio recordings that might exist of conversations with the now-fired director. They expect to bring in Mr Comey in to testify, as well.

Mr Trump is preparing to leave town Friday on his first foreign trip, and aides have been hopeful the journey will be a chance for the administration to get back on track after weeks of chaos and distractions.

Sen Lindsey Graham, R-SC, speculated Mr Trump was probably happy to get out of town ``and a lot of us are glad he’s leaving for a few days.’’

His advice to the president: ``Stay disciplined, stay focused and deliver on the world stage.’’ AP