WHITE HOUSE - In a surprise move, a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was named Wednesday as a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation of “Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and related matters,” according to the U.S. Justice Department.
The appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel — also known as a special prosecutor — does not mean “a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted,” explained Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who in recent days expressed skepticism about the need for such independent oversight.
“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,” Rosenstein added.
President Trump was notified of the decision after Rosenstein had signed the order. Rosenstein informed the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, who walked into the Oval Office around 5:35 p.m. to tell the president. Trump reacted calmly but defiantly, according to two people familiar with the situation.
Trump expects quick conclusion
Without mentioning Mueller's appointment, President Donald Trump, in a statement, 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.”
After his new assignment was announced, Mueller said, “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.”
Mueller held the top position at the FBI for 12 years until 2013. He was succeeded by James Comey, who was fired last week by President Trump, a move that set off a political firestorm.
Mueller brings instant integrity
A Republican political analyst, Evan Siegfried, told VOA that until Mueller's appointment, “there was zero integrity in this investigation.”
Mueller, he explained, will be “completely siloed off from the Department of Justice and the FBI. He has his own budget; he can hire his own staff; he can kick all the FBI to the curb for all he wants” and can take the investigation wherever it leads.
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.
Concerns from both sides
The move came after a small but growing number of Trump's Republican colleagues in Congress, along with Democrats, began calling for a special prosecutor or commission to examine ties between Trump and his campaign 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.
Comey had been leading an investigation into the Trump team's ties to Russia. News reports Tuesday disclosed that Comey wrote an internal FBI memorandum months ago saying the president asked him to suspend or end an investigation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
A mixed response
Democrats predictably are praising Mueller's selection. Some prominent Republicans on Capitol Hill are, as well, concerned that a ballooning scandal could derail their legislative agenda, despite controlling both house of Congress.
Republican Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Democratic Senator Mark Warner, the committee's vice chairman, in a joint statement, called Mueller's appointment “a positive development and will provide some certainty for the American people that the investigation will proceed fairly and free of political influence.”
Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Intelligence Committee, commented that “for the sake of the country, all parties must fully cooperate with his efforts that are focused on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.”
Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees, termed the naming of a special counsel “absolutely necessary,” adding that Mueller's reputation for exercising judgment in standing up to administration pressures is “exactly what is required for this important position.”
Congressman Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Mueller is a “great selection,” adding that he has “impeccable credentials” and should be widely accepted.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Mueller is “a respected public servant of the highest integrity,” but that “a special prosecutor is the first step, but it cannot be the last.”
Congressman Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the oversight committee, commended Rosenstein for putting “our country and justice system first.”
Some Republicans question move
However, some Republicans questioned the move.
Congressman Peter King expressed concern 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.”
The Republican leadership, however, confirmed that investigations already started in the Senate and the House will continue.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said his top priority “has been to ensure thorough and independent investigations are allowed to follow the facts wherever they may lead.”
(Katherine Gypson, Mike Bowman and Bill Gallo contributed to this report.)