Besieged from all sides, the Trump administration appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller Friday evening as special counsel to oversee the federal investigation into allegations that Russia and Donald Trump's campaign collaborated to influence the 2016 presidential election. Mueller will have sweeping powers and the authority to prosecute any crimes he uncovers.
The appointment came as Democrats insisted ever more loudly that someone outside Trump's Department of Justice must handle the politically-charged investigation.
An increasing number of Republicans, too, have joined in calling for Congress to dig deeper, especially after Trump fired James Comey from the post of FBI director. Comey had been leading the bureau's probe.
One congressman also called for Trump to be impeached.
TRT World's Oliver Whitfield Miocic reports.
The surprise announcement, the latest in the shock-a-day Washington saga, marked a concession by the Trump administration, which had resisted calls from Democrats to turn the investigation over to an outside prosecutor.
The White House counsel's office was alerted only after the order appointing Mueller was signed.
After the announcement, 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 in a statement. "I look forward to this matter concluding quickly."
Earlier Wednesday, Trump complained in a commencement address that "no politician in history" has been treated worse by his foes, even as exasperated fellow Republicans slowly joined the clamour for a significant investigation into whether he tried to quash the FBI's probe.
The Mueller appointment increases the pressure on Trump and his associates.
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 would surely include Trump's firing last week of FBI Director James Comey.
TRT World's Ediz Tiyansan reports on the criticism faced by Trump.
Who is Mueller?
Mueller, a former federal prosecutor at the justice department, was confirmed as FBI director days before the September 11, 2001, attacks that would ultimately shape his tenure.
The FBI's counter-terror mission was elevated in those years, as US intelligence agencies adjusted to better position America to prevent another attack of such magnitude.
He was so valued that then-president Barack Obama asked him to stay on two years longer than his 10-year term.
Comey succeeded him, appointed by Obama.
Mueller was appointed Wednesday by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who had faced criticism as the author of a memo that preceded Comey's firing.
Republicans on edge
Republicans largely stood behind Trump in the first months of his presidency as FBI and congressional investigations into Russia's election meddling intensified.
But GOP lawmakers have grown increasingly anxious since Trump fired Comey, who had been leading the bureau's probe. More so after Comey associates said he had notes from a meeting in which Trump asked him to shut down the investigation into the Russia ties of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
First reactions from Congress were mainly positive.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said the appointment was consistent with his goal of ensuring that "thorough and independent investigations are allowed to follow the facts wherever they may lead."
Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Mueller was a "great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted."
And not a moment too soon, Democrats said.
"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 Elijah Cummings of Maryland, top Democrat on the oversight panel.
The latest political storm, coupled with the still-potent fallout from Trump's recent disclosure of classified information to Russian diplomats at the White House, has overshadowed all else in the capital and beyond.
A shaky Wall Street
Stocks fell sharply on Wall Street on Wednesday as investors worried the latest turmoil in Washington could hinder Trump's pro-business agenda
The S&P; 500 and the Dow notched their biggest one-day fall since September 9 as investor hopes for tax cuts and other pro-business policies faded after reports that Trump tried to interfere with a federal investigation set off alarm bells on Wall Street.
The developments intensified doubts whether Trump would be able to follow through on his promises for tax cuts, deregulation and fiscal stimulus. Those pledges had helped fuel a record-setting post-election rally on Wall Street.
Selling accelerated late in the afternoon of one of the busiest trading days in months and the three major indexes ended near session lows.
Blame it on the banter
The White House has disputed Comey's account of his February conversation with Trump concerning Flynn but has not offered specifics.
Several congressional Republicans said Wednesday that if Trump did suggest that Comey "let this go" regarding Flynn's Russian contacts, it was probably just a joke, light banter.
Both of the explosive revelations — that the president pressed his FBI director to drop a federal investigation before later firing him, and that he disclosed classified information to senior Russian officials — came from anonymous sources but from major league news organisations.
The White House was quick to denounce the leaks and deny any impropriety. Trump aides said he never tried to squelch the Flynn investigation nor made inappropriate disclosures to the Russians.
Comey come hither
On Capitol Hill, Comey was clearly the man in demand, with three committees working to seat him at their witness tables soon, two in the Senate and one in the House.
The Senate intelligence committee also asked acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe to turn over any notes Comey might have made regarding discussions he had with White House or Justice Department officials about Russia's efforts to influence the election.
But just before things could calm down, more information about the House of Trump was released by the New York Times:
Trump team knew Flynn was under investigation and appointed him anyway https://t.co/SAWvk41W82— Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) May 18, 2017
NYT: Trump aides knew Michael Flynn was under investigation before he became NSA and gained access to state secrets https://t.co/UkGGTNF3jV— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) May 18, 2017
However, 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.
18 undisclosed contacts
Reuters on Thursday reported that Michael Flynn and other advisers to Donald Trump's 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. It attributed the information to current and former US officials familiar with the exchanges.
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 Trump's campaign and Russia.
Given the current circumstances, this will be considered a developing story.