Donald Trump has defended his appointment of Matthew Whitaker to replace Jeff Sessions, as a controversy grew over the man man now overseeing the Russia probe.

The 49-year-old was appointed by Mr Trump this week after firing Mr Sessions, someone who shared many of his political instincts but who had angered the president by recusing himself from the investigation, being carried out by Robert Mueller.

The move to appoint Mr Whitaker sparked a backlash, as fears grew he would seek to shut down Mr Mueller’s probe, which he last year described as “a witch hunt”. Mr Trump has repeatedly used that phrase himself to describe the special counsel’s investigation.

On Friday, as Mr Trump left the White House to fly to France for events to mark the centennial of the end of the First World War, he defended the decision to appoint him, saying, he was a “very smart man and highly respected”.

He said he had not spoken to Mr Whitaker about the Russia investigation and did not personally know him well. “It’s a shame that no matter who I put in they go after,” he told reporters. “You didn't have any problems with Matt Whitaker when he worked for Jeff Sessions.”

He added: “This only comes up because anybody that works for me they do a number on them...Matt Whittaker’s a very highly respected man.”

Asked whether he would want Mr Whitaker to rein in Mr Mueller’s probe, Mr Trump replied: “What a stupid question.”

Mr Trump’s remarks came as the White House was said to be increasingly concerned about the backlash created by the appointment of Mr Whitaker as acting attorney general. Some officials, CNN said, were worried they would be unable to secure his confirmation by the Senate, as more and more questions have been asked about his suitability for the job, not just from Democrats, but also Republicans and conservatives. 

Three senior Republicans - Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Lamar Alexander - issued statements praising Mr Sessions and saying it was important that Mr Mueller be allowed to continue his work.

Among those legal voices questioning the suitability of Mr Whitaker’s appointment was George Conway, the husband of White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway. He co-authored a New York Times op-ed published on Thursday that called the appointment “unconstitutional”.

He said that the appointments clause of the constitution, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2, “means Mr Trump's installation of Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general of the United States after forcing the resignation of Jeff Sessions is unconstitutional. It's illegal. And it means that anything Mr. Whitaker does, or tries to do, in that position is invalid”.

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Reports said the concern within the West Wing had grown as more evidence emerged of Mr Whitaker’s long-stated opposition to the investigation being carried out by Mr Mueller. Last year, Mr Whitaker wrote that it was dangerously close to becoming a “witch hunt”.

Meanwhile, during a television appearance he imagined a scenario in which the “attorney general doesn't fire Bob Mueller, but he just reduces his budget to so low that his investigation grinds to almost a halt”.

On Thursday, Democrats on Capitol Hill demanded emergency hearings to investigate Mr Trump’s ouster of Mr Sessions, calling the move an effort to undermine Mr Mueller

In a letter saying the move placed the country “in the throes of a constitutional crisis”, members of the House judiciary committee demanded action from the panel’s Republican chairman, Bob Goodlatte, and called for bipartisan legislation to protect Special Counsel Robert Mueller from any effort to stymie the probe.

Congressional Democrats, including newly elected members of the House, held a conference call on Thursday to discuss Sessions' ouster, Democratic lawmakers and aides said.

“[Mr Sessions’ firing] just makes us all the more want to make sure we have that special counsel protection bill passed or added to any spending bill that may be moving in the end-of-year session, Democratic congressman Mark Pocan told Reuters. “We are watching what appears to be continued obstruction by this White House.”

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