U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a joint news conference with Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (not pictured) at the White House in Washington, May 18, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a joint news conference with Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (not pictured) at the White House in Washington, May 18, 2017.

WHITE HOUSE - U.S. President Donald Trump said Thursday that he respected the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his campaign's alleged links to Russian interests in last year's presidential election.

However, Trump, speaking at a White House news conference, said investigations thus far had been nothing but a "witch hunt."

"We have a very divided country because of this and other things," the president said.

He again denied any collusion with the Russians.

Trump told reporters he was "fine with whatever people want to do," but said his administration has to get back to running the country "really really well."

Comey 'very unpopular'

When one reporter asked Trump whether he'd asked then-FBI Director James Comey to end the Russia investigation, the president replied with a terse "no" and asked for the next question.

But Trump added that Comey was "very unpopular" and that he'd given a poor performance during his congressional testimony before the president fired him.

The special counsel appointed Wednesday, former FBI chief Robert Mueller, will look into several questions involving the president, including the alleged Russian ties, the Comey firing and possible obstruction of justice.

Two U.S. senators — Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Lindsay Graham of South Carolina — are now calling Mueller's probe "a criminal investigation."

U.S. intelligence says Moscow meddled in the U.S. election to favor Trump and try to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Twitter comments

Earlier in the day, Trump disparaged the appointment of the special counsel.

In a pair of early-morning comments on Twitter, Trump complained that a special counsel was never named to investigate "all of the illegal acts that took place" in the Clinton campaign, or in the administration of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

These developments came days before Trump's first foreign trip, to the Middle East and Europe, and amid questions of whether the U.S. leader has lost his credibility and leverage among foreign partners.

At the State Department on Thursday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came to Trump’s defense.

“I think the people in the rest of the world do not have the time to pay attention to what’s happening domestically here,” said Tillerson, who will accompany Trump on the trip.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses re
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses reporters at a press conference at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., May 18, 2017.

“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.” Tillerson said at a joint news conference with his Mexican counterpart.

The U.S. intelligence community already has concluded that Moscow meddled in the election to help Trump claim the White House by hacking into the computer files of Clinton campaign chief John Podesta. The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks subsequently released thousands of his emails that cast an embarrassing look at behind-the-scenes efforts of Democratic operatives to help Clinton win her party's nomination.

Mueller assumes his new role as the FBI and the intelligence committees in both the Senate and House are probing Trump campaign links to Russia.

Trump has said the claims of Russia's involvement in the election are excuses by Democrats as an explanation for Clinton's upset loss. Trump said last week that he was thinking of "this Russia thing" as he fired Comey.

On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee said it had requested documents from the FBI and Justice Department related to the dismissal.

Associates of Comey say notes he kept of a February meeting at the White House with Trump showed the president asking Comey to end his probe of Trump's first national security adviser, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, whom Trump ousted after it was learned he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to Washington.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made the Mueller appointment, to the surprise of Trump and his aides.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein arrives on
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 18, 2017, for a closed-door meeting with Senators.

Rosenstein said Mueller's appointment as special counsel — also known as a special prosecutor — does not mean "a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted."

But he added, "What I have determined is that 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."

Before his Thursday Twitter comments, Trump said, "A thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity."

After his new assignment was announced, Mueller said, "I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability."

Then FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies on Capi
FILE - Then FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 19, 2013, before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Mueller held the top position at the FBI for 12 years until 2013. He was succeeded by Comey, whose firing by Trump set off a political firestorm in Washington.

A Republican political analyst, Evan Siegfried, told VOA that until Mueller’s appointment, “there was zero integrity in this investigation.”

Mueller, he said, will be “completely siloed off from the Department of Justice and the FBI. He has his own budget; he can hire his own staff; he can kick all the FBI to the curb for all he wants” and can take the investigation wherever it leads.

The special counsel also would seek indictments and lead court action against anyone charged with criminal acts as a result of discoveries during the probe.

Numerous top lawmakers praised Mueller's appointment, saying that it gave them confidence that there will be a fair and thorough investigation.