Trump advisers met with Russians at least 18 times
Ex-FBI chief hired as special counsel to lead investigation into Russia links
WASHINGTON: Former FBI chief Robert Mueller was tasked on Wednesday with leading a beefed-up investigation into whether Mr Donald Trump's team colluded with Russia to tilt the 2016 election in the president's favour.
Mr Trump responded by once again denying any links to Moscow, but a new Reuters report quoting current and former US officials said Mr Michael Flynn and other advisers to Mr Trump's campaign were in contact with Russian officials on at least 18 occasions during the last seven months of the presidential race.
This has added potency to allegations that Mr Trump, who has struggled to shake off suspicions that Russia helped put him in the White House, was seeking to block the investigation by sacking FBI chief James Comey.
Under pressure to provide guarantees to Congress and the public that the Russia probe will continue unhindered, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein tapped Mr Mueller - a widely respected figure who headed the FBI for the decade after the 9/11 attacks - to take over the reins as a special counsel.
"Based upon the unique circumstances, the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command," Mr Rosenstein said in a statement.
A New York-born Vietnam war vet aged 72, Mr Mueller has a reputation as a tough lawman.
He will head up the FBI's ongoing probe of "Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and related matters," with the authority to prosecute crimes unearthed by the investigation, AFP reported.
Mr Trump reacted swiftly, without directly commenting on Mr Mueller's appointment.
"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," he said in a tersely-worded statement.
"I look forward to this matter concluding quickly."
Mr Trump made that tweet before Reuters released its report, which stated that the 18 or so previously undisclosed interactions form part of the record now being reviewed by FBI and congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the election and contacts between Mr Trump's campaign and Russia.
Six of the previously undisclosed contacts described to Reuters were phone calls between Mr Sergei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the US, and Trump advisers, including Mr Flynn, Mr Trump's first national security adviser, three current and former officials said.
Conversations between Mr Flynn and Mr Kislyak accelerated after the Nov 8 vote as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Mr Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the US national security bureaucracy, which both sides considered hostile to improved relations, four current US officials said.
A special counsel is empowered to conduct the investigation independent of the Justice Department hierarchy, with a dedicated staff of his choosing.
The counsel is not required to consult or keep informed the attorney general or deputy attorney generals on the course of the probe. Mr Mueller is specifically empowered to examine "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump".