Former FBI Director Robert Mueller Named Special Counsel for Russia Probe

Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein cites ‘public interest’ in naming Mr. Mueller

Robert Mueller, right, arriving for a court hearing in San Francisco in April.

Robert Mueller, right, arriving for a court hearing in San Francisco in April. PHOTO: JEFF CHIU/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller III was appointed Wednesday as special counsel to oversee the federal investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, giving him wide latitude to explore potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement he was naming a special counsel due to the inquiry’s “unique circumstances.” The public interest, he said, “requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.”

Mr. Rosenstein cautioned that his decision wasn’t the result of a “finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted.” He said he has made no such determination.

The appointment, an unusual step, marks a significant new phase in the high-stakes investigation into alleged Russian electoral meddling, which has swept up the Trump administration, bogged down Congress and distracted lawmakers from their agenda.

The Justice Department didn’t specify the parameters of the probe beyond noting that Mr. Mueller would oversee the previously confirmed Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry into Russia’s role in last year’s election. Russian officials have denied meddling in the race.

In a statement late Wednesday, President Donald Trump said: “There was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity. I look forward to this matter concluding quickly.” He didn’t mention the appointment of a special counsel.

Mr. Rosenstein gave the White House very short notice that he was making the appointment.

The naming of Mr. Mueller, who served under presidents of both parties and is widely respected, could make it harder for partisans on either side of the aisle to question the results of the Russia investigation. With few limits on his mandate, Mr. Mueller could conduct a broad, open-ended investigation with no deadline for completion.

Mr. Mueller was the sixth director of the FBI, a position he took one week before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and held for 12 years, making him the bureau’s longest-serving director after J. Edgar Hoover.

His appointment as special counsel was announced amid increasing calls in Congress for an independent inquiry into Russia’s alleged meddling in the election and the escalating controversy surrounding Mr. Trump’s firing last week of former FBI Director James Comey, who was spearheading the Russia investigation.

Mr. Mueller could theoretically investigate allegations that Mr. Trump improperly sought to pressure Mr. Comey to back off an investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned in February after giving conflicting statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.

Mr. Comey prepared a memo describing a February meeting with the president in which he wrote that Mr. Trump asked him to “let this go,” referring to the inquiry into Mr. Flynn, according to two people close to the former FBI director.​Mr. Trump has denied asking Mr. Comey to back off the Flynn probe.

The decision to tap a special counsel was striking in part because Mr. Rosenstein had resisted such calls, saying he felt federal prosecutors and FBI agents were independent enough to handle the investigation. Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores declined to comment beyond the news release her office issued Wednesday evening.

Mr. Rosenstein’s thinking on the issue evolved in recent days as he came to conclude that an independent prosecutor was needed to prove to the public that the investigation would be thorough and impartial, according to a person close to the deputy attorney general.

He had been sharply criticized by some who said he may have been trying to quash the investigation by writing a memo that criticized Mr. Comey’s handling of the FBI probe into Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she served as secretary of state, the person said.

In his memo, Mr. Rosenstein didn’t outright call for Mr. Comey to be fired but said the bureau had lost the trust of the public and Congress under the former director’s tenure.

​He next sought out help from Mr. Mueller, who led the bureau under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama won approval from Congress to extend Mr. Mueller’s 10-year-term an additional two years, through 2013.

In signing the order Wednesday, Mr. Rosenstein relied on a 1999 regulation governing the appointment of a “special counsel” to oversee investigations involving a conflict of interest or extraordinary circumstances.

Mr. Rosenstein had the authority to appoint the special counsel because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any aspects of investigations involving the 2016 election following reports he hadn’t disclosed meetings with the Russian ambassador last year. Mr. Rosenstein has been overseeing the investigation ever since.

Mr. Rosenstein will oversee Mr. Mueller’s work and has the power to end his investigation. But the regulations note that Mr. Mueller won’t be “subject to the day-to-day supervision of any official in the department.” If Mr. Rosenstein disagrees with a course of action Mr. Mueller would like to pursue, the deputy attorney general is required to give “great weight” to the special counsel. If Mr. Rosenstein decides to block an action, he is required to provide an explanation to Congress.

The Justice Department has relied on the regulation just once: when Attorney General Janet Reno in 1999 appointed former Sen. John Danforth to investigate the “Branch Davidian” siege near Waco, Texas. Then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey in 2003 appointed Patrick Fitzgerald, then the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, to be a special counsel to oversee the investigation into the leaking of a Central Intelligence Agency operative’s identity. Mr. Comey didn’t rely on the regulation because Mr. Fitzgerald was already a Justice Department prosecutor.

Mr. Mueller has stepped down from his role as partner at the law firm WilmerHale. “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability,” Mr. Mueller said in a statement Wednesday night.

ROBERT S. MUELLER III

  • 72 years old
  • 1976: Joined U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco.
  • 1982: Moved to U.S. attorney’s office in Boston; worked on the investigation into the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
  • 1989: Became assistant to Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, advising him on criminal matters and serving as liaison to the FBI, the DEA, and other federal agencies.
  • 1995: Joined the U.S. attorney’s office, District of Columbia
  • 1998: Became interim U.S. attorney, Northern District of California; later nominated and confirmed as U.S. attorney
  • 2001-2013: Director of the FBI; nominated by President George W. Bush
  • KEY CASES:
  • In charge of the initial investigation into the Boston Marathon bombings
  • After his FBI career, helped manage the litigation against Volkswagen over emissions
  • Oversaw dispersal of restitution money in Takata air-bag case

At the FBI, Mr. Mueller was credited with transforming the agency to take on a greater intelligence gathering role. Mr. Obama eventually nominated Mr. Mueller’s successor, Mr. Comey, who was recently fired by Mr. Trump.

The initial reaction from Capitol Hill to Mr. Mueller’s appointment was largely positive. Some Republicans viewed the appointment with something akin to relief.

Rep. Ryan Costello (R., Pa.) said the appointment removes pressure from Congress since lawmakers have been asked daily for their thoughts on how the investigation should be handled. “It takes it off the table for the time being,” Mr. Costello said.

Mr. Costello also spoke highly of Mr. Mueller. “I think that his record, from what I understand, is unimpeachable in terms of his integrity and experience,” he said.

Democrats agreed. “Former Director Mueller is exactly the right kind of individual for this job,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the chamber’s Democratic leader. “I now have significantly greater confidence that the investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead.”

But not everyone was on board. “I don’t see the need for one,” said Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican. “To me, it’s a bad precedent to set, if any time there’s an investigation of an administration, you have to have a special counsel. These guys go on forever.”

Some Democrats, such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader, said they still wanted an independent outside commission to investigate because the Trump administration still would have some influence over Mr. Mueller.

“A special prosecutor is the first step, but it cannot be the last,” Mrs. Pelosi said. “Director Mueller will still be in the chain of command under the Trump-appointed leadership of the Justice Department. He cannot take the place of a truly independent, outside commission that is completely free from the Trump administration’s meddling.”

Mr. Rosenstein’s move came as the White House appeared to be moving closer to selecting an FBI director to succeed Mr. Comey, a position that requires Senate confirmation. The naming of a special counsel could mean the new director has less direct influence over the Russia investigation because that will now be spearheaded by Mr. Mueller, likely with several FBI agents detailed to his operation.

Write to Del Quentin Wilber at del.wilber@wsj.com and Aruna Viswanatha at Aruna.Viswanatha@wsj.com

Appeared in the May. 18, 2017, print edition as ‘Ex-FBI Chief to Lead Russia Probe.’

https://www.wsj.com/articles/former-fbi-director-robert-mueller-named-special-counsel-for-russia-probe-1495058494

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One Response to “Former FBI Director Robert Mueller Named Special Counsel for Russia Probe”

  1. Brittius Says:

    Reblogged this on Brittius.

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