The U.S. Justice Department, in the face of rising pressure from Capitol Hill, named former FBI chief Robert Mueller on Wednesday as special counsel to investigate alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
The move followed a week in which the White House was thrown into an uproar following Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. Democrats and some of the president’s fellow Republicans had demanded an independent probe of whether Russia tried to sway the outcome of November’s election in favor of Trump and against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
In a statement after the Justice Department announcement, Trump said he looked forward to a quick resolution of the matter.
“As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know – there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity,” he said.
Mueller, in a statement tweeted by CBS News, said: “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.”
Trump, who said in a speech earlier on Wednesday that no politician in history “has been treated worse or more unfairly,” has long bristled at the notion that Russia played any role in his November election victory.
But the Russia issue has clouded his early months in office. Moscow has denied U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion it meddled in the campaign.
Pressure on the White House intensified after Trump fired Comey, who had been leading a federal probe into the matter, and allegations that Trump had asked Comey to end the FBI investigation into ties between Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and Russia. That raised questions about whether the president improperly attempted to interfere with a federal investigation.
The issue spilled over onto Wall Street on Wednesday where the S&P 500 and the Dow had their biggest one-day declines since September as investor hopes for tax cuts and other pro-business policies faded amid the political tumult. The Justice Department announcement came after the market close.
“My decision (to appoint a special counsel) is not the finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement announcing the special counsel.
“I determined that a special counsel is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome,” he said.
On hearing of Mueller’s appointment from White House Counsel Don McGahn, Trump assembled his senior aides in the Oval Office and gave them a pep talk, casting the probe as an opportunity to refocus on his agenda, a senior White House official said. Learning the news less than a half hour before it was publicly announced, Trump dictated the statement that was soon released.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill generally welcomed the Justice Department action and praised Mueller for his integrity, but House and Senate Republican leaders said they would go on with their own investigations of the Russia matter.
“A special counsel is very much needed in this situation and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein has done the right thing,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.
Republican House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said he was confident Mueller “will conduct a thorough and fair investigation.”
A discordant note was sounded by Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, who praised Mueller’s credentials, but said: “I don’t think they should have appointed someone.”
“I have not seen any evidence of actual collusion. Where is the actual crime that they think they need a special prosecutor to prosecute,” Chaffetz told Fox News.
Mueller, 72, was decorated as a Marine Corps officer during the Vietnam War. A former federal prosecutor, he is known for his tough, no-nonsense managerial style. Appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, he became FBI director one week before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In 2011, he was asked by Democratic President Barack Obama to stay on for two more years. He was replaced by Comey in 2013.
Mueller was credited with transforming the FBI, putting more resources into counterterrorism investigations and improving its cooperation with other U.S. government agencies.
Although Mueller will serve at the pleasure of Rosenstein, the job comes with independence and autonomy.
Some past independent investigations have stretched for years. For example, Kenneth Starr, who investigated former President Bill Clinton, probed allegations surrounding his past real estate deals but later expanded the inquiry into Clinton’s relations with then-White House intern Monica Lewinsky, leading to an impeachment of Clinton by the House.
The White House on Wednesday was conducting interviews of candidates to replace Comey as head of the FBI.
A senior administration official said former Democratic vice presidential candidate and Senator Joe Lieberman, one of those interviewed by Trump, was among the leading candidates.
Trump’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, said others being interviewed were acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, former Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating and former senior FBI official Richard McFeely. (Courtesy Reuters)