- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2017

A defiant President Trump scoffed Thursday at the Justice Department special counsel investigation into collusion with Russia, calling it a “witch hunt” and “ridiculous,” but he acknowledged it had become a major distraction from his agenda.

Despite declaring there was “zero” collusion between his campaign and Moscow, he still couldn’t escape the Russia ruckus that he said was “dividing the country.”

“We look forward to getting this whole situation behind us,” Mr. Trump said. “We want to get back and keep on the track that we’re on, because the track that we’re on is record-setting.”

The Democrats’ allegations of a Trump-Moscow conspiracy to rig the presidential election prompted the Justice Department to name a special counsel, and the issue now appears destined to dog him on his first trip abroad, hanging over crucial talks for foreign leaders.

As he prepared to depart for the Middle East and Europe, Mr. Trump was forced to field questions about Russia at a White House joint press conference Thursday with the president of Colombia.

Mr. Trump voiced confidence in the Justice Department appointment of former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III as special counsel, even as he disparaged the aim of the investigation.

“I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt,” he said.

“There was no collusion,” he later added. “And everybody, even my enemies, have said there is no collusion.”’

The FBI has been investigating the Russia allegations since last summer. Officials repeatedly have said that no evidence so far has been found to support the Democrats’ accusations.

The intrigue nevertheless continues to consume Washington.

On the other end of Pennsylvania Ave., House Speaker Paul D. Ryan struggled to shift the focus to work advancing in Congress.

“I know that people can get consumed with the news of the day, but we are here, working on people’s problems every day,” he told reporters at the Capitol.

Still, Democratic senators cited the uproar about Russia as a reason to stymie Mr. Trump’s agenda, including preventing him from filling key administration posts.

Democrats also remained united in opposition to his agenda on health care, tax reform and border security.

News reports of Trump campaign officials having contact with Russians have fueled accusations that they conspired with the Kremlin to impact the U.S. presidential election by undermining Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

As a result, Mr. Trump has been treated as a criminal or illegitimate successor to the White House by Democrats and much of the news media since his upset election.

Revelations in recent days, including a memo by then-FBI Director James B. Comey that implied Mr. Trump attempted to discourage an investigation of his aides, have kept the White House on defense.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson insisted that the Russian investigation wouldn’t taint Mr. Trump’s foreign trip, which includes a historic itinerary of stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and Vatican City in Rome.

“People in the rest of the world do not have the time to pay attention to what’s happening domestically here,” he said at a State Department event. “They are more concerned about what they see happening in the relationship with their country and what we are bringing to address these very serious challenges that are affecting all of us.”

After visiting the homeland and holy sites of three major religions, seeking to advance Middle East peace and unify Muslim countries to combat radical Islam, Mr. Trump will attend a NATO summit in Brussels and G-7 meeting in Sicily.

At the joint press conference, Mr. Trump flatly denied pressuring Mr. Comey, whom the president fired last week, to drop the FBI investigation.

He also fired back when a reporter asked if any of his action would be worthy of criminal charges of impeachment, as Democrats contend.

“I think it’s totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so,” Mr. Trump said.

He insisted he’d done a “fantastic job,” but the American people only hear allegations about Russia.

“We have to get back to running our country properly so that we can take care of the problems that we have,” he said.

The president had sent mixed signals in the hours after the counsel was appointed Wednesday night. In an official statement from the White House, he said he looked forward to the matter being concluded. But on his Twitter account, Mr. Trump called the probe “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”



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