Justice names special counsel for Russia investigation

 

The Justice Department has appointed former FBI director Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE as special counsel to investigate Russia's involvement in the U.S. election, a momentous step that darkens the legal cloud hanging over President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoint Chiefs chairman denies report that US is planning to keep 1K troops in Syria Kansas Department of Transportation calls Trump 'delusional communist' on Twitter Trump has privately voiced skepticism about driverless cars: report MORE’s White House.

Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinGraham says he'll probe Rosenstein's 25th Amendment remarks The damning proof of innocence that FBI likely withheld in Russian probe Conway's husband: 'Banana republic' if Trump got his wish to go after investigators MORE 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 ComeyJames Brien ComeyA question of privilege: How Trump could still gut the Mueller report The damning proof of innocence that FBI likely withheld in Russian probe Nadler: Half of Trump probe targets likely to comply with document requests MORE

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 lawmaker defends Chelsea Clinton after confrontation over New Zealand attacks Klobuchar: Race, gender should not be litmus tests for 2020 Dem nominee Kirsten Gillibrand officially announces White House run 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 LankfordJames Paul LankfordGOP senators eye 'nuclear' move to change rules on Trump nominees Senate GOP goes down to wire in showdown with Trump Overnight Defense: Pentagon seeks B over five years for Space Force | Trump says Warmbier comments 'misinterpreted' | GOP bristles at Trump plan to pay for wall MORE (R-Okla.) called Rosenstein’s decision “positive,” and other Republicans issued similar praise.

"Robert Mueller is an exceptional public servant,” Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseRepublicans up for reelection fear daylight with Trump 12 Republican senators defy Trump on emergency declaration  Trump faces growing Senate GOP backlash on emergency declaration MORE (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 HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesHillicon Valley: Doctors press tech to crack down on anti-vax content | Facebook, Instagram suffer widespread outages | Spotify hits Apple with antitrust complaint | FCC rejects calls to delay 5G auction House Dem introduces bill requiring public firms to disclose cybersecurity expertise in leadership House lawmakers clash over GOP allegations Dems coached Cohen MORE (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 SessionsO'Rourke on impeachment: 2020 vote may be best way to 'resolve' Trump House Judiciary Dem, Republican clash over details of Whitaker testimony DeVos moves to allow religious groups to provide federally funded services to private schools 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 ManafortPaul John ManafortBharara: 'Doesn't seem' Mueller's investigation 'ending any time soon' Dems fear Trump is looking at presidential pardons The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump condemns 'horrible' New Zealand mosque shootings MORE

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 KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerBooker, Gabbard to make appearances with Colbert The Hill's 12:30 Report: Cohen back on the hot seat The Hill's Morning Report - Citing probes, Trump says 2020 race has begun MORE (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.