Ex-FBI Chief Will Lead Russia Probe

  • FILE - In this July 30, 2001, file photo, Robert Mueller is sworn in at the start of his testimony during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, to be the FBI director. Mueller took office as FBI director in 2001 expecting to dig into drug cases, white-collar misdeeds and violent crime. A week later was Sept. 11. Overnight, his mission changed and Mueller spent the next 12 years wrestling the agency into a battle-hardened terrorism-fighting force. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook, File) ap file photograph

Published: 5/18/2017 12:07:16 AM
Modified: 5/18/2017 12:07:24 AM

Washington — The Justice Department appointed a special counsel on Wednesday to investigate possible coordination between President Donald Trump’s associates and Russian officials — a clear signal to the White House that federal investigators will aggressively pursue the matter despite the president’s insistence that there was no “collusion” with the Kremlin.

Robert Mueller III, a former prosecutor who served as the FBI director from 2001 to 2013, has agreed to take over the investigation as a special counsel, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced. 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 intensified after 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.”

Mueller, often described by those who worked for him as a stern and press-averse disciplinarian, issued a characteristically terse statement: “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.”

Trump reacted to the news by saying “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. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country.”

The White House did not learn of Rosenstein’s decision until just 30 minutes before the public announcement was made.

Rosenstein called White House Counsel Donald McGahn at 5:30 p.m. to inform him, at which point McGahn walked downstairs from his second-floor office to the Oval Office to notify Trump.

Trump summoned his senior staff to the Oval Office, and together they drafted a statement reacting to the decision, coming from the president, that was distributed to reporters shortly after 7 p.m.

One senior White House official who was present for the discussions described Trump as “unbelievably calm and measured.”

“I expected him to be ranting and raving, but he was like, ‘Fine, let them do what they have to do, but we’ll be focused on our agenda,’ ” said this official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private talks.

Democrats cheered the announcement as a step forward in resolving the unanswered questions about Russian meddling in last year’s presidential election - and whether the president or anyone at the White House has interfered with the investigation.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Mueller “has the expertise and experience, guts and backbone to uncover the truth.” He said Mueller must be given all the resources necessary to “pursue the facts wherever they lead,” including whether anyone may have tried to obstruct justice.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, cheered the choice, tweeted: “Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted.”

But some Democrats said Mueller’s appointment does not preclude the need for an independent commission to examine Russian interference in the election.

“An independent commission doesn’t govern the FBI investigation, an independent commission doesn’t make charging decisions,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting its own probe of Russian meddling. “The value an independent commission adds is you have a body that is truly independent of any political consideration. And also has all the resources it needs and a single focus on the oversight of what Russia did, how we need to respond in the future, and it brings that political independence and staff and resources on task. So those are two different needs, and I think they’re complementary, not in competition with each other.”

The special counsel law grants Mueller the authority to probe possible attempts to stymie his investigation.

The decision to appoint a special counsel comes a day after revelations that notes taken by Comey in February recount a conversation with the president in which Trump asked him to drop an investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Associates of Comey said he took detailed notes of multiple conversations with the president, and lawmakers are now demanding access to those memos and any other related records held at the FBI.

The decision also comes amid intense pressure on the senior official who has been overseeing the Russia probe, Rosenstein, to appoint a special counsel.

Rosenstein was put in charge of 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 initially used as the rationale for Comey’s firing. In the memo, Rosenstein said Comey had violated long-standing 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 had decided to fire Comey before he received the recommendation from Rosenstein.

Rosenstein is scheduled to brief the full Senate in a closed session on Thursday.

Former colleagues said Rosenstein’s move may help restore his battered reputation among current and former government lawyers. “He got absolutely pummeled by people that he knows,” said a former senior Obama administration lawyer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly. “I think this move, as so often happens in Washington, where there is the opportunity to wash away your sins, was a thorough scrubbing.”

Under the order signed on 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.

It wasn’t immediately clear from the language of the order where Mueller might draw the lines as to which matters are related to the Russia investigation.

That language seems to suggest that Mueller also could take over ongoing investigations into leaks of classified information connected to the Russia probe. As the FBI director, Mueller assiduously discouraged leaks by his subordinates and oversaw investigations that sought to criminally charge leakers of government secrets.

“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.

Another potential legal complication could arise from the law firm where Mueller worked until his appointment as special counsel. That firm, WilmerHale, has represented Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has been under investigation relating to his work and payments for advising Ukrainian government officials. Officials referred questions about possible recusals on those subjects to Mueller, who didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Officials said the appointment was being made under a Justice Department statute that has only been used once, in 1999, although the Justice Department has made other special counsel appointments more recently under different authority.

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