CAPITAL REGION —The appointment of former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III as a special counsel to the Justice Department doesn't change the need for an independent investigation of the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia, said U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam.
The 20th Congressional District congressman signed a House of Representatives discharge petition Wednesday that calls for the appointment of a 12-member bipartisan independent commission that would have subpoena powers and other abilities to investigate.
The appointment of Mueller doesn't change Tonko's mind, though he said it was a good step.
The Justice Department "has taken the right step in appointing a special prosecutor. The American people deserve to know the truth," Tonko wrote on Twitter after the late-Wednesday announcement of Mueller's appointment.
But Tonko still thinks there needs to be an independent investigation by someone who isn't working under the Trump administration, as Mueller will.
"I'm concerned," Tonko said in a Wednesday interview. "The allegations that are being offered -- the questions that are being posed — these are questions that the American public deserves answers to.The American public deserves the truth. The allegations are all credible; that's the thing."
A discharge petition is a way of forcing a bill to a floor vote even if it is opposed by House leadership, which has so far resisted calls for an independent probe. U.S. Reps. Eric Swalwell, D-California, and Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, submitted the petition.
If a majority of House members sign it — which would require at least 23 Republicans to join with Democrats — the matter would be forced to the House floor for a vote. As of Thursday, the petition had 176 signatures, about 40 short of what it needs.
Questions about the relationship between Russia and Trump — and some of his advisers — have intensified with last week's firing of FBI Director James Comey, whose agency is investigating possible Russian connections. On Tuesday, there were reports that Trump pressured Comey to shut down part of the FBI inquiry involving Russian links to former National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn.
The White House denied any improper conduct by President Trump, and the president, in a Thursday morning tweet, called the probe "the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" At a news conference later Thursday, Trump emphatically denied asking Comey to drop the Flynn investigation.
"The more I hear the more concerned I get, and the more concerned the public gets," Tonko said. "The president and his top advisers have murky and potentially improper relations to Russia. This is not a Democratic issue; it is not a Republican issue. It is an American issue."
Even some Republican congressmen have called for investigation of Comey's reported memo about the meeting at which Trump raised the issue of Flynn. Neither local Republican member of Congress has signed the discharge petition, though they have acknowledged a need to investigate.
"Mr. Mueller has unquestioned integrity and is a wise choice to lead the DOJ investigation as Special Counsel," U.S. Rep. John Faso, R-Kinderhook, wrote on Twitter.
Faso has also said Congress has a role to play.
"Let the appropriate committees do their oversight work and collect the facts," he said. "It is also imperative that the next FBI director nominee maintain public confidence in that vital agency. The Russia matter should be fully examined, and every lead must be pursued.”
21st Congressional District U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, issued statement — through her spokesman — about the latest developments.
"Congresswoman Stefanik strongly supports Speaker Ryan's statement that it is appropriate for the House Oversight Committee to request the Comey memo," Stefanik spokesman Tom Flanagin said in a prepared statement. "Congress should review this as soon as possible."
A Democrat who is campaigning to unseat Stefanik in the North Country district called for appointment of an independent special prosecutor.
"It's time we come together and recognize we are under threat in this country by a foreign power, and we need our government to be protecting us," said Patrick Nelson, of Stillwater, who plans to run against Stefanik in 2018, in a post on Facebook.