Former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been named special prosecutor to oversee the investigation of “Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and related matters,” the Justice Department said late Wednesday.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the appointment of a special counsel — also known as a special prosecutor — does not mean “a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted.”
“I have made no such determination,” Rosenstein said in a statement.
“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 added.
Without mentioning Mueller’s appointment, President Donald Trump said: “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’s statement was released late Wednesday by the White House.
Mueller held the top position at the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 2001-2013 and was replaced by James Comey, who was fired last week by President Trump. After his new assignment was announced, Mueller said, “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.”
A special prosecutor conducts an investigation independent of the Justice Department and is not required to inform the attorney general or deputy attorneys general about the progress of the investigation. The special prosecutor also would seek indictments and lead court action against anyone charged with criminal acts as a result of discoveries during the probe.
A small but growing number of Trump’s Republican colleagues in Congress, along with Democrats, have been calling for a special prosecutor or commission to examine ties between Trump and his aides to Russia. Such an investigation would be in addition to those already being conducted by the FBI and the intelligence committees in both the Senate and House.
Calls for action
Pressure for further action has been building since Trump’s abrupt and unexpected dismissal of Comey, who had been leading an investigation into the Trump team’s connections to Russia, and in particular since news reports on Tuesday disclosed that Comey had written an internal FBI memorandum months ago saying that Trump asked him to suspend or end an investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
Rosenstein said he determined “a special counsel is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome” of investigative work within the Justice Department, whose top officials were appointed by Trump.
Reactions on Capitol Hill were generally positive, welcoming the choice of Mueller to head the investigation.
Congressman Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Mueller is a “great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted.”
Senator Chris Coons, a Democrat, said Mueller “has exercised independent judgment in standing up to administration pressures before, and that’s exactly what is required for this important position.”
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Mueller is “a respected public servant of the highest integrity,” then added: “A special prosecutor is the first step, but it cannot be the last.”
Congressman Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, called Mueller a “solid choice,” and commended Rosenstein for putting “our country and justice system first.”
Reaction to special prosecutor’s role
However, some Republicans questioned the naming of a special prosecutor.
Congressman Darrell Issa said Mueller “has a long history of honorable service,” but when choosing a special prosecutor, “You want to make sure we have somebody who doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel. … You want (someone) to hit the ground running and can be accountable in a matter of weeks to the oversight of Congress, which is part of this process.”
Congressman Peter King was concerned about the wide purview special prosecutors have: “I’m worried with all special counsels because there’s no control over them and they can abuse their power.”
Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, tweeted that while she was glad someone of Mueller’s stature would lead the investigation, “I still have concerns and questions about the involvement of Attorney General (Jeff) Sessions in the firing of FBI Director Comey.”
The Republican leadership confirmed that investigations already started in the Senate and the House would continue.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the decision by Rosenstein to appoint Mueller “confirms that the investigation into Russian intervention into our election will continue.” He added that the investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence would also continue.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement: “My priority has been to ensure thorough and independent investigations are allowed to follow the facts wherever they may lead. That is what we’ve been doing here in the House. The addition of Robert Mueller as special counsel is consistent with this goal, and I welcome his role at the Department of Justice. The important ongoing bipartisan investigation in the House will also continue.”
Steve Herman at the White House and Katherine Gypson on Capitol Hill contributed to this report.