WASHINGTON – President Trump on Thursday flatly denied asking ex-FBI Director James Comey to drop his investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and described Democratic talk of possible impeachment as "totally ridiculous."
Revelations that Comey – whom Trump abruptly fired last week – kept detailed notes of his past meetings with Trump roiled Washington politics this week. Asked if he, as Comey's memos indicate, did indeed press the former FBI director to stop investigating Flynn, Trump cut off the reporter, saying only: "No, no – next question."
One day after the Justice Department appointed a special prosecutor to take over the FBI's investigation into possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russia during last year's election, the president again denied any improper action, saying "there is no collusion" between himself, his campaign, and Russia.
Trump also curtly dismissed Democratic congressional chatter about the prospect of impeachment for possible obstruction of justice, calling it "totally ridiculous – everybody thinks so."
These were Trump's first live, televised comments about both reports of the Comey memos and the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel.
Even as Trump said "I respect the move" to appoint a special counsel for the Russia investigation, he insisted "the entire thing has been a witch hunt" that has divided the country and served as a distraction for his administration's agenda.
"We have to get back to running this country really, really well," Trump said at the news conference after meetings with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia. "We have to get back to working our country properly so that we can take care of the problems that we have. We have plenty of problems. We've done a fantastic job."
Mueller and his team will oversee the ongoing FBI probe into possible links between Trump campaign associates – including Flynn –and Russians who sought to influence the election through hacking and other forms of sabotage to undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton.
In the morning, Trump took to Twitter on Thursday to denounce the investigation as the "single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history."
"With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!" Trump tweeted.
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
This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 18, 2017
It was unclear what "illegal acts" Trump was referring to, though as a candidate he did pledge to appoint a special counsel to investigate his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton's use of private email during her years as secretary of State – a threat he hasn't yet followed up on.
Despite Trump's denunciations on Thursday of the probe, he appeared to accept the decision immediately after it was announced. "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 brief statement Wednesday. "I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country."
The White House was stunned by the announcement, which they learned about less than an hour before the news became public – and after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had already signed the order designating Mueller to lead the Russia probe.
In the hours after the announcement, the White House said it planned not to answer reporters' questions about the probe and would defer them to the special counsel's office. Though that might be difficult if Trump himself continues to speak out.
Also, as Democrats and some Republicans said Trump's sudden dismissal of Comey last week looked like an attempt to shut down the Russia investigation, Trump also defended the move – saying he had done a bad job at the FBI. He expected his decision would have had bipartisan support, he said, given Democratic criticism of Comey over his handling of another FBI investigation into presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server.
He also, notably, cited Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's "very, very strong recommendation'' to fire Comey.
Yet it was Trump who informed Rosenstein of his plan to fire Comey, before the deputy attorney general's scathing assessment of the director's performance that was used as justification for his firing. That's what the deputy told senators in a briefing Thursday, they said after a closed-door briefing with Rosenstein on Thursday.
Rosenstein's apparent comments would directly contradict the White House's explanation for Comey's abrupt dismissal last Tuesday. It also raises new questions about whether Trump purposely solicited Rosenstein's three-page memo on Comey's controversial handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server as cover to fire the director who was overseeing a widening inquiry into possible collusion between Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government.
"He (Rosenstein) knew the day before,'' said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of four congressional panels now exploring ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
In the White House news conference Thursday, Trump clearly wanted to move on. He promised to appoint a new FBI director soon; he and aides have identified former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman as a major contender for the slot.
"We look forward to getting this whole situation behind us." Trump said, so that he can focus on issues like jobs, the military, and health care. "We want to get back and keep on the track that we're on, because the track that we're on is record-setting," he said. "And that's what we want to do is we want to break very positive records."
Contributing: Kevin Johnson