A secret tape has surfaced in which a senior Republican and Donald Trump ally alleges Mr Trump is on the payroll of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Washington Post has listened to (and verified) the tape in which one of his closest allies in Congress, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, makes an explosive claim among fellow senior Republicans that Mr Trump could be receiving “payments from Russian President Vladimir Putin”.
“There’s two people I think Putin pays: Rohrabacher and Trump,” Mr McCarthy said, according to the recording made on June 15 last year.
When some of those present laughed, Mr McCarthy fired back: “Swear to God.”
Mr McCarthy was referring to Dana Rohrabacher, a Californian Republican known in Congress as a vocal supporter of both Mr Putin and Russia.
House Speaker, fellow Republican and Trump supporter Paul Ryan then interjected, halting the conversation and urging those present to keep the conversation private, saying: “NO LEAKS … This is how we know we’re a real family here.
“What’s said in the family stays in the family,” Mr Ryan cautioned.
The conversation has remained a secret for almost a year, until it was leaked to and reported by the Post on Wednesday (US time).
Post reporter Adam Entous concluded that the conversation provided insight into the internal views of Republican leaders “who now find themselves under mounting pressure over the conduct of President Trump”.
“The exchange shows that the Republican leadership in the House privately discussed Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election and Trump’s relationship to Putin, but wanted to keep their concerns secret,” Entous wrote.
The day before that meeting, the Post had reported that Russian hackers had penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee.
That prompted Mr McCarthy to discuss the hacking scandal with Ukrainian Prime Minister Vladimir Groysman with whom he and Mr Ryan had held talks in Washington on the same day the taped conversation took place.
While spokespeople for Mr McCarthy and Mr Ryan denied the conversation took place, Evan McMullin, who was present, confirmed to the Post: “It’s true that Majority Leader McCarthy said that he thought candidate Trump was on the Kremlin’s payroll. Speaker Ryan was concerned about that leaking.”
Mr McMullin was at the meeting in his capacity as policy director to the House Republican Conference, ran unsuccessfully for president as an independent and is a frequent critic of Mr Trump.
House Republican leaders had resisted calls for an independent commission or prosecutor to investigate possible Russian interference, but pressure mounted after Mr Trump’s sacking of FBI director James Comey and the revelation the President shared intelligence with Russian officials.
Overnight, deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the appointment of former FBI director Robert Mueller as a special prosecutor to oversee an investigation into Russia’s influence on last year’s presidential election.
The appointment came amid a growing outcry for someone outside the Justice Department to handle the politically-charged investigation.
Mr Rosenstein said it was “in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter”.
“My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted,” Mr Rosenstein said. “I have made no such determination.
Mr Mueller was appointed FBI director in 2001 and led the FBI through the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks. He retired in 2013. He has resigned from his job at a private law firm – linked on social media to work done for Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner – to take the job of special counsel.
The White House released a statement from President Trump immediately after the appointment was announced in which he once again denied collusion between his campaign and Russia.
“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,” Mr Trump said.
“I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country.”