Justice names special counsel for Russia investigation

 

The Justice Department has appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russia's involvement in the U.S. election, a momentous step that darkens the legal cloud hanging over President Trump’s White House.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the appointment of Mueller, a former prosecutor who served 12 years at the helm of the FBI and is respected on both sides of the aisle. 

"In my capacity as acting attorney general I determined that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for the matter," Rosenstein said in a statement, according to The Washington Post. 

"My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination. 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."

Rosenstein had been under fierce pressure from Democrats — and in the last 24 hours, a few Republicans — to appoint a special counsel in the wake of Trump’s dismissal of former FBI Director James Comey. 

Trump was interviewing potential replacements for Comey at the White House when the news of Mueller’s appointment broke.

“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.  I look forward to this matter concluding quickly,” Trump said in a statement. “In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country. 

The calls for a special counsel reached a fever pitch in the wake of a Tuesday report that Trump had urged Comey to "let go" of the investigation into his former national security advisor Michael Flynn — a request that Comey reportedly documented in a memo that is now being sought by Congress.

Trump fired Comey last week, a decision the president has publicly linked to the bureau’s investigation of Russia, which includes exploring any coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia to help swing the election. 

Rosenstein had authored a memo on Comey’s conduct in office that the White House had used to justify the firing — something that reportedly frustrated Rosenstein, a career prosecutor whose integrity was suddenly called into question. 

The Rosenstein memo, which stopped short of explicitly recommending Comey's firing, laid out a series of critiques of his handling of the investigation into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGOP rushes to cut ties to Moore Papadopoulos was in regular contact with Stephen Miller, helped edit Trump speech: report Bannon jokes Clinton got her ‘ass kicked’ in 2016 election MORE's private email server. 

The president later said that he had decided to fire Comey irrespective of Rosenstein's recommendation.

Since Comey’s dismissal, an increasing number of Republicans had expressed openness to some form of new investigation, whether it come in the form of a special prosecutor appointed by the Justice Department, a special congressional committee or an independent commission. 

Mueller’s appointment could take some of the heat off congressional Republicans, who were coming under intense pressure to respond to the drumbeat of revelations about Trump’s conduct. Senate Intelligence Committee member James Lankford (R-Okla.) called Rosenstein’s decision “positive,” and other Republicans issued similar praise.

"Robert Mueller is an exceptional public servant,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement. “His record, character, and trustworthiness have been lauded for decades by Republicans and Democrats alike." 

Democrats, who have denounced Trump’s actions as obstruction of justice, were giddy at the news.

“I'm surprised and thrilled. I can't think of anybody with more integrity and who will have as much credibility within the FBI as Bob Mueller,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who sits on the House Intelligence Committee. “This is a master stroke, I think, by the deputy attorney."

Rosenstein will have a chance to explain his decision to lawmakers on Thursday morning, when he is set to brief the full Senate — a previously scheduled appearance related to the controversy over Comey’s dismissal.

The decision about appointing a special counsel fell to Rosenstein because Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsCurtis wins Chaffetz's former Utah House seat Overnight Cybersecurity: What we learned from Carter Page's House Intel testimony | House to mark up foreign intel reform law | FBI can't access Texas shooter's phone | Sessions to testify at hearing amid Russia scrutiny FBI can’t unlock Texas shooter’s phone MORE recused himself from the Russia matter earlier this year after failing to disclose a meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyac during testimony to the Senate. 

Mueller will have broad powers to conduct the investigation, which has been underway at the FBI for months and appears to be focused heavily on several figures who were prominent in the Trump campaign, including Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort. 

Before his firing, Comey had reportedly asked Rosenstein for more prosecutors to pursue the Russia investigation.

While Mueller will have broader authority to run the investigation autonomously than a U.S. attorney, he will still answer to Rosenstein, who ultimately answers to the president.

Appointed by George W. Bush, Mueller is a revered figure within the FBI. He is credited with shepherding the FBI into its modern iteration, rebuffing post-9/11 calls to break up the FBI and create a separate domestic intelligence agency.  

He directly preceded Comey in office, serving two additional years at the helm of the agency at the request of President Obama. He left office in 2013.

Mueller will resign from his private law firm to avoid any conflicts of interest, according to the Justice Department.

Several Democrats on Wednesday argued that the appointment of Mueller does not supplant the need for an outside panel, to complement the DOJ probe and those in Congress. 

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who applauded the appointment of Mueller, pushed back against the Democrats’ argument.

“If we want to start popping up all kinds of different investigations everywhere, this is never going to get solved. And it’s literally just going to be that: a political talking point for the next [election] cycle,” he said. “This is beyond what it just means for Republicans and Democrats.

— Jordan Fabian and Mike Lillis contributed.