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‘Witch hunt’: Trump appears at odds with White House over Robert Mueller

Donald Trump on Thursday said he was the target of the “greatest witch hunt” in US political history after a decision by the Department of Justice to appoint special counsel to investigate ties between his 2016 presidential campaign and Russia.

The morning after FBI director Robert Mueller accepted the appointment to lead the department’s investigation into Russian intervention in the US election, Trump lashed out in a pair of tweets.

“With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel 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!”

The tweets struck a different tone 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.

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.

Rosenstein will be on Capitol Hill this week to brief members of Congress on the circumstances of Comey’s firing. Trump initially presented a letter from Rosenstein as a central factor in the president’s decision to fire Comey. Trump then undermined that explanation by saying he had already decided to dismiss the FBI chief before hearing from Rosenstein.

Rosenstein will brief the Senate on Thursday in a private meeting, and return to the Hill on Friday to brief the House.

A bipartisan chorus of lawmakers have also called on Comey to testify publicly in 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”.

Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and the vice-chair of the Senate intelligence committee, remarked dryly that lawmakers were certainly “not lacking for questions”.

“We’ve got questions about the president’s comments about tapes – secret tapes – we have question about transcripts from the meetings with the Russians, and we have questions about obtaining former director Comey’s memo and that’s just Wednesday,” he said.

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. This particular provision has been invoked only once before, in the Bill Clinton administration, when former Senator John Danforth was to investigate the Branch Davidian siege outside Waco, Texas.

The position is different from an independent counsel, the role in which Ken Starr investigated Bill Clinton throughout the 1990s. The law authorising that position expired in 1999.

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.

But some in the GOP expressed concern that the appointment conveyed the wrong message.

“There should be the most special circumstances when you have an independent prosecutor – you should have evidence for a crime,” said New York representative Peter King, a Republican, who argued the appointment was unnecessary.

“There’s no evidence of collusion at all,” King added said. “Just a rabid press corps and a very intense Democratic Party.”

Additional reporting by Tom McCarthy, Jon Swaine and Ben Jacobs