WASHINGTON – The Justice Department abruptly appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller on Wednesday night as a special counsel to lead a federal investigation into allegations that Donald Trump's campaign collaborated with Russia to sway the 2016 election that put him in the White House. Mueller will have sweeping powers and the authority to prosecute any crimes he uncovers.
The surprise announcement to hand the probe over to Mueller, a lawman with deep bipartisan respect, was a striking shift for Trump's Justice Department, which had resisted increasingly loud calls from Democrats for an outside prosecutor. It immediately escalated the legal stakes – and the potential political damage – for a president who has tried to dismiss the matter as partisan witch hunt and a “hoax.”
In a written statement, Trump insisted anew there were no nefarious ties between his campaign and Russia. “A thorough investigation will confirm what we already know – there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity,” he declared.
Mueller's broad mandate gives him not only oversight of the Russia probe, but also “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” That would surely include Trump's firing last week of FBI Director James Comey.
Mueller, a former federal prosecutor at the Justice Department, was confirmed as FBI director days before Sept. 11, 2001. He was so valued that President Barack Obama asked him to stay on two years longer than his 10-year term. Comey succeeded him, appointed by Obama.
Mueller was appointed Wednesday by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who said the appointment was “necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome.”
Republicans have largely stood behind Trump in the first months of his presidency as FBI and congressional investigations into Russia's election meddling intensified. But GOP lawmakers have grown increasingly anxious since Trump fired Comey, who had been leading the bureau's probe – and after Comey associates said he had notes from a meeting in which Trump asked him to shut down the investigation into the Russia ties of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said the Mueller appointment was consistent with his goal of ensuring that “thorough and independent investigations are allowed to follow the facts wherever they may lead.”
Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Mueller was a “great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted.”
And not a moment too soon, Democrats said.
“I believe Mueller will be independent, he will be thorough and he will be fair, and he's not going to be easily swayed,” said Elijah Cummings of Maryland, top Democrat on the oversight panel. Cummings has vigorously urged such an appointment, suggesting it could lead to accusations of obstruction of justice.
The latest political storm, coupled with the still-potent fallout from Trump's recent disclosure of classified information given to Russian diplomats at the White House, has overshadowed all else in the capital and beyond.
Trump has repeatedly slammed the FBI and congressional investigations as a “hoax” and blamed disgruntled officials at intelligence agencies for leaking information related to the probes.
No less a commentator than Russia's Vladimir Putin called the dramatic charges swirling around Trump evidence of “political schizophrenia spreading in the U.S.” He offered to furnish a “record” of the Trump-diplomats meeting in the Oval Office if the White House desired it.
There was no word on what that record might entail, a question many were likely to raise in light of Trump's recent warning to Comey that he had “better hope” there were no tapes of a discussion they'd had.
The White House has disputed Comey's account of his February conversation with Trump concerning Flynn but has not offered specifics. Several congressional Republicans said Wednesday that if Trump did suggest that Comey “let this go” regarding Flynn's Russian contacts, it was probably just a joke, light banter.
On Capitol Hill, Comey was clearly the man in demand, with three committees working to seat him at their witness tables soon, two in the Senate and one in the House.
The Senate Intelligence Committee also asked acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe to turn over any notes Comey might have made regarding discussions he had with White House or Justice Department officials about Russia's efforts to influence the election.