The Justice Department on Wednesday named former FBI Director Robert Mueller to serve as special counsel investigating Russia’s alleged involvement in the 2016 presidential election, including any possible involvement of President Donald Trump’s campaign in that effort.
Meeting the increasingly strident demands of Democratic lawmakers, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein tapped Mueller to oversee the probe, despite recent White House statements that they viewed the appointment of a special counsel as unnecessary.
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“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 said in a statement. “A special counsel is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome. Our nation is grounded on the rule of law, and the Public must be assured that government officials administer the law fairly.”
Trump said in a statement after the announcement that he expected the probe would find no collusion between his 2016 White House campaign and foreign countries.
“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,” Trump said. “I look forward to this matter concluding quickly.”
The White House was not informed of Rosenstein’s decision until late in the afternoon Wednesday and was blindsided by the move, an administration official said. Lawmakers were briefed on the appointment Wednesday afternoon, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Rosenstein did not say what facts spurred the decision. However, it came one day after press reports emerged that former FBI Director James Comey kept notes about his interactions with Trump on the Russia probe and that one such memo reflects a request from the president to abandon any investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who played a key role on Trump’s campaign.
The firing of Comey last week and more recent revelations that Trump had asked him to drop the Flynn investigation led to increased Democratic calls for a special prosecutor, and even some Republicans voiced support. Compounding the White House’s woes, news leaked that Trump provided two Russian officials with classified information during an Oval Office meeting last week.
Trump has called the Russia inquiry a “taxpayer-funded charade,” and said accusations of collusion are “fake news” and a “hoax” pushed by Democrats as an excuse for losing the election. The White House has repeatedly insisted that there was no wrongdoing by Trump or the campaign.
Rosenstein made the move in his capacity as acting attorney general after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation due to his own role in Trump’s campaign.
The Justice Department statement Wednesday shed little light on the ongoing probe, simply referring to it as “the previously-confirmed FBI investigation of Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, and related matters.” Comey confirmed the existence of the investigation in testimony to Congress in March.
However, the order Rosenstein signed appointing Mueller made clear his authority includes scrutinizing actions taken by people affiliated with the Trump campaign.
The deputy attorney general stressed that the move to appoint a special prosecutor did not mean anyone involved acted illegally.
“My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted,” Rosenstein said in a statement.
Mueller agreed to resign from his private law firm, Wilmer Hale, to pursue the probe, the Justice Department said. He was appointed under Justice Department regulations allowing the naming of a special counsel from outside the department when a conflict of interest exists or under “extraordinary circumstances.”
The appointment immediately received plaudits.
“I can’t think of a better selection,” said John Carlin, who led the Justice Department’s national security division as it pursued the Russia hacking investigation in its earliest stages before the November election.
Carlin, a former FBI chief of staff and senior counsel to Mueller, insisted his former boss would run a by-the-book operation.
“He’s the world’s most buttoned-down person that has conducted himself in each spot that he’s had,” Carlin said. “What he’s going to do is follow the facts and evidence where they lead. There will either be charges that can be brought or there won’t. There won’t be additional discussion.”
Senior Democrats also applauded the move.
“A special counsel is very much needed in this situation, and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein has done the right thing,” Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement. “Former Director Mueller is exactly the right kind of individual for this job. I now have significantly greater confidence that the investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead.”
Rosenstein had come under fire from Democrats for drafting the memo that was initially said to be the precipitating factor for Comey’s firing, though Trump later said he would have fired Comey either way.
Rosenstein will brief senators Thursday for a previously scheduled session.
The appointment of Mueller marked the first time the Justice Department has gone outside its ranks to tap a special prosecutor since 1999, when Attorney General Janet Reno picked former Sen. John Danforth to investigate the showdown at the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas.
Subsequent attorneys general have also named special prosecutors, but from within the department under other rules.
The best-known such appointment in recent years came in 2003 when Comey—then the deputy attorney general—named Patrick Fitzgerald, then U.S. attorney in Chicago, to oversee an investigation into the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
Fitzgerald never charged anyone with the leak, but he obtained an indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis Libby for lying to investigators and obstructing justice in the probe. A jury convicted Libby, who was sentenced to two and a half years in prison. President George W. Bush commuted that sentence but declined to wipe out Libby’s conviction.
In previous decades, special prosecutors were usually appointed under a statute commonly referred to as the independent counsel law. That measure—formally part of the Ethics in Government Act—expired in 1999 amid considerable controversy over the spending and conduct of a slew of independent counsels during the 1980s and 1990s. They included Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr, whose investigation morphed repeatedly, eventually resulting in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.