JUDY WOODRUFF: President Trump is rejecting the need for an independent investigator into his alleged ties with Russia. He’s also again denying any wrongdoing in connection with Russia.
He spoke out today, as a newly appointed special counsel began looking into just that.
William Brangham begins our coverage.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch-hunt.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The president’s displeasure with the naming of a special counsel was crystal-clear at his joint White House news conference with the visiting president of Colombia.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign. But I can always speak for myself and the Russians. Zero. I think it divides the country. I think we have a very divided country because of that and many other things.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In a sudden shift last night, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate Russian meddling in the election, alleged collusion with the Trump campaign and any other related matters that may arise.
Rosenstein said he acted to restore the public’s trust. That trust was certainly tested in a series of bombshell developments in recent days. First, there was the president’s sudden firing of FBI Director James Comey last week, then reports that Mr. Trump leaked classified information about the Islamic State group to Russian diplomats, and finally allegations that he urged Comey back in February to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn.
Flynn had just been fired as national security adviser for lying about his contacts with the Russians.
The president was asked directly about Comey today.
QUESTION: Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way, shape or form to close or to back down the investigation into Michael Flynn, and also as you look …
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, no. Next question.
QUESTION: As you look back over the past six months or year, have you had any recollection where you have wondered if anything you have done has been something that might be worthy of criminal charges?
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think it’s totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Democrats had for weeks pressed for an independent commission or special counsel, and most welcomed Mueller’s selection.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y., Minority Leader: Mr. Rosenstein has done the right thing. I applaud his decision for both its correctness and its courage. I now have significantly greater confidence that the investigation will follow the facts, wherever they lead.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Most Republicans had resisted naming a special counsel, but, today, House Speaker Paul Ryan and others applauded the move.
REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis., Speaker of the House: The appointment of a special counsel, I think, helps assure people and the Justice Department that they are going to go do their jobs independently and thoroughly, which is what we called for all along.
SEN. JOHN CORNYN, R-Texas: Robert Mueller is perhaps the single most qualified individual to lead such an investigation, in my view, and he’s certainly independent.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Mueller ran the FBI for 12 years, taking over just days before the 9/11 attacks, and served both Democratic and Republican presidents.
Journalist Garrett Graff is the author of a Mueller biography.
GARRETT GRAFF, Journalist: Bob Mueller’s entire history is as a tenacious prosecutor. And so he will follow the Russia investigation wherever it leads. But the good news for Donald Trump is, he’s also the only person perhaps in America who could end up declaring that there’s no there there, and having people believe that.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Back at the Capitol this afternoon, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein briefed the full Senate in a closed session on the firing of Comey and the handling of the Russia investigation. Rosenstein wrote the memo that the president used as a basis to dismiss Comey.
Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill says Rosenstein acknowledged that the memo he wrote on Comey wasn’t, in fact, what triggered the firing.
SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D-Mo.: He did acknowledge that he learned Comey would be removed prior to him writing his memo.
QUESTION: Say that again? He what?
SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL: He knew that Comey was going to be removed prior to him writing his memo.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Republican Lindsey Graham praised the Mueller selection, but also voiced misgivings.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: You couldn’t have picked a better man to do the job.
And I think most people in that meeting are generally OK with the idea of a special counsel. But what they don’t quite understand yet is I think this has really limited what Congress can do.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All of this as new revelations surfaced about Michael Flynn. The New York Times reports the Trump transition team knew Flynn was under investigation weeks before the inauguration for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey.
The McClatchy News Service reported that, during the transition, Flynn blocked a military plan against the Islamic State that was opposed by Turkey. It was later approved after his ouster. And Reuters reports Flynn and other Trump campaign advisers had contact with Russian officials at least 18 times during the last seven months of the presidential campaign.
Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee became the latest congressional panel to ask for more documents on the ouster of Comey and his conversations with the president.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn now to our Lisa Desjardins on Capitol Hill and John Yang at the White House.
Lisa, I’m going to start with you. We were just hearing from those senators as they came out of the briefing with the deputy attorney general. What more are you hearing from that?
LISA DESJARDINS: Right, those senators emerged with one unified theme, that the deputy attorney general was a very cautious man.
And he, on many questions, actually deferred, saying he couldn’t answer them, that it was up to the new special counsel, Mueller. Now, Judy, that left Republicans, they said, with a sense of confidence that here was a deputy attorney general who was trying to remove politics and Congress from this investigation.
Democrats, however, they were frustrated. They said they’re worried that, as this goes forward, they may not get many details about what is happening with this investigation.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Lisa, other questions the senators were asking today?
LISA DESJARDINS: The big one. They asked repeatedly, who told Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein to write that letter about why FBI Director Comey should be fired? They asked him again and again. And we’re told he didn’t answer. So it’s a question still in the air.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, John, at the White House, they were fielding questions about a new FBI director. I know I was there. The president had a session with television news anchors.
But, clearly, one of the questions on their mind is getting to the choice of this new FBI director.
JOHN YANG: That’s right.
And at a photo opportunity with the Colombian president, he repeated what he told you and the other anchors at lunch, that he expects to name a new FBI director very soon. Now, he doesn’t say exactly what that means, if that’s going to be as soon as before he leaves on his first foreign trip tomorrow afternoon.
And aides say that he’s holding this rather close to his vest, but he has indicated that Joe Lieberman is a leading candidate. Lieberman said that this is a bit of a surprise to him. He came in, spoke to the president yesterday afternoon. He said he didn’t seek this, that he had been invited, he had been invited to come speak to the president just the day before.
This wouldn’t only be something of a bipartisan selection, but sort of a pan-partisan selection. He was, of course, Al Gore’s running mate on the Democratic ticket in 2000. He ran for reelection after losing the Democratic primary as an independent in 2006, and then, 2008, sort of broke with the party, went to the Republican Convention, and endorsed John McCain against President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. Of course, Lieberman, a longtime Democratic senator from the state of Connecticut.
So, Lisa, what’s the reaction on the Hill to this talk?
LISA DESJARDINS: Right.
It’s another one of these reverse worlds. The Democrats who would have elected Lieberman as vice president told me today they’re not sure he should be FBI director. They said again and again they think it should be someone who has never held elected offices, someone outside of politics.
Republicans, on the other hand, say they love the choice of Joe Lieberman. In particular, John McCain said on the question of experience, quote to me: “Joe Lieberman has more experience than the rest of my Democratic colleagues combined, and you can quote me.”
JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly to John, the White House trying to turn the focus today to the president’s overseas trip, which starts tomorrow.
JOHN YANG: This is a big trip, eight days, four nations, and sort of high stakes any time the president goes overseas, but I think for the first trip for a president, it’s always closely watched.
The planning seems to be a little ragged. They have been having a little trouble getting the details, all the details that the television networks in particular need to have in order so that they can plan, so that they can bring the pictures of that trip back to the United States.
But ready or not, he leaves tomorrow afternoon, first stop, Saudi Arabia.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And we will be talking about that some more in a few minutes.
John Yang at the White House, Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol, thank you.