Trump fires back as Russia probe intensifies

President Trump showed Thursday he is prepared to fight hard against allegations he interfered with a federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. 

He vehemently denied during a news conference at the White House that he asked former FBI Director James Comey to drop the bureau’s investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a central figure in the Russia inquiry. 

“No, no,” Trump said when asked whether he told Comey to back off Flynn, then demanded the reporter move on to the “next question.” 

Trump denounced the appointment of a special counsel to lead the probe, repeatedly calling it an unprecedented “witch hunt” that “hurts the country.” 

“Well, I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt,” Trump said, standing alongside Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. “I think we have a very divided country because of that and many other things.”

The president reiterated that he never colluded with the Russians in their effort to influence the November election. 

“There is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign,” he said. “But I can always speak for myself and the Russians. Zero.”

Even as Trump stewed over the move, Republicans on Capitol Hill voiced confidence the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel would help quiet the controversy that has enveloped Washington since Comey’s dismissal last week.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrLawmakers grapple with warrantless wiretapping program Facebook under fire over Russian ads in election 5 senators call for US to shutter embassy in Havana MORE (R-N.C.), whose panel is conducting its own Russia probe, told CNN on Wednesday night that he sees Mueller's selection as a “positive move.”

“I think a lot of members want the special counsel to be appointed but don’t understand that you’re pretty well knocked out of the game. And that’s probably the way it should be,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTop Louisiana health official rips Cassidy over ObamaCare repeal bill Senate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions MORE (R-S.C.) said Thursday.

Trump has made it clear he disagrees. 

He lashed out Thursday morning in a string of tweets, calling the move the “single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history” by opponents who want to undermine his victory.

The tweets stood in stark contrast to the measured reaction issued Wednesday evening by the White House press office, which voiced Trump’s hope the probe would conclude “quickly” because “there was no collusion.”

But the president’s frustration has been growing since he fired Comey, a move he admitted was made in part because of the director’s involvement in the Russia probe, which he called “a made up story” and “an excuse by the Democrats” for losing the election. 

Firing Comey has backfired for Trump, who said Thursday he thought it would be a “bipartisan decision.”

He expressed surprise at the reaction, pointing to the recommendation he received from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to fire Comey for his handling of the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBiden slams Trump over golf gif hitting Clinton Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Overnight Tech: Equifax hit by earlier undisclosed hack | Facebook takes heat over Russian ads | Alt-right Twitter rival may lose domain MORE email investigation.

"I actually thought when I made that decision — and I also got a very, very strong recommendation from [Rosenstein] — when I made that decision, I thought it would be bipartisan," Trump said. "You look at all the people on the Democratic side, not just the Republican side, saying such terrible things about Director Comey."

But the revelations that Trump sought to pressure Comey to ease off his investigation of Flynn prompted some lawmakers and legal experts to say he was trying to obstruct justice. 

It also built pressure on Rosenstein, who was overseeing the Russia probe, to appoint an outsider to lead it.  

As special counsel, Mueller can use broad powers to investigate Russia’s election interference, including possible ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia. 

Trump insisted that any suggestion that he obstructed the investigation or committed an impeachable offense is "totally ridiculous."

But the matter is now firmly in the hands of Mueller and congressional investigators, putting the White House on the defensive before Trump leaves Friday for his first overseas trip as president. 

Aides have been forced to respond to leaks containing damning accounts of Comey’s conversations with Trump, including his alleged Flynn request. 

Many staffers, including those not involved, will likely have to hire lawyers in case they are questioned by the special counsel’s office. 

Trump himself is reportedly facing pressure from allies and advisers, including his personal lawyer Michael Cohen, to seek outside legal help to handle the Russia probe. 

Updated 6:14 p.m.