By Devlin Barrett, Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky,
The Justice Department has decided to appoint a special counsel to investigate possible coordination between Trump associates and Russian officials seeking to meddle in last year’s election, according to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Robert Mueller, a former prosecutor who served as the FBI director from 2001 to 2013, has agreed to serve in the role, Rosenstein said. The move marks a concession by the Trump administration to Democratic demands for the investigation to be run independently of the Justice Department. Calls for a special counsel have increased since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last week.
“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 this matter,’’ Rosenstein said in a statement. “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.’’
He said Mueller has agreed to resign from his private law firm to avoid any conflict of interest.
Rosenstein is overseeing the Russia probe after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. Democrats have challenged Rosenstein’s impartiality in the Russia probe because he wrote a memorandum used as the rationale for Comey’s firing. In the memo, Rosenstein said Comey had violated longstanding Justice Department practices in his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, but shortly after the announcement of the firing the president said he’d decided to fire Comey before he received the recommendation from Rosenstein.
Under the order signed Wednesday by Rosenstein, Mueller is tasked with investigating “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump’’ as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation’’ and any other matters that fall under the scope of the Justice Department regulation covering special counsel appointments.
“If the special counsel believes it is necessary and appropriate, the special counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters,’’ the order states.
Officials said the appointment was being made under a Justice Department statute that has only been used once, in 1999, though the Justice Department has made other special counsel appointments more recently under different authority.
Peter Zeidenberg, who has worked for a past special counsel, called Mueller an “inspired choice’’ because he comes to the job with automatic credibility among both parties.
“He’s nominally a Republican, but he’s really not a political person at all,’’ said Zeidenberg, a lawyer now in private practice, who cautioned that such an investigation is likely to take a long time, and may not ultimately satisfy the public’s demand for a full accounting. “People are waiting for public answers to what happened, but that’s not his job. There won’t be a report or a press conference at the end of this from him, that’s not his role.’’