Mueller appointment an attempt to restore confidence

Analysis: Democrats satisfied after independent counsel assigned to FBI Russia investigation

Former FBI director Robert Mueller has been appointed to lead the FBI’s investigation into alleged contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign before the US election. Photograph: Reuters

Former FBI director Robert Mueller has been appointed to lead the FBI’s investigation into alleged contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign before the US election. Photograph: Reuters

 

The ongoing controversy surrounding the White House took a further twist on Wednesday as the US department of justice announced the appointment of a special counsel to lead the FBI’s Russia investigation.

Former FBI director Robert Mueller will oversee the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election as well as “related matters”, the department of justice said. Announcing the decision, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein said that “the public interest” required him to place the investigation under the authority of a person who exercises “a degree of independence from the normal chain of command”.

Mueller’s appointment represents an attempt by the department of justice to restore public confidence in the investigations.

While Rosenstein said his decision was “not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted”, he said it was “in the public interest for me to exercise my authorities and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter”.

The announcement is likely to take some heat off Republicans, who have been criticised for backing President Donald Trump – Mueller’s appointment was widely welcomed by Democrats, who have long called for an independent counsel to be appointed to head up the investigation. Mueller himself is well respected. Though appointed by president George W Bush, he was asked to stay on past his 10-year term at the helm of the agency by Democratic president Barack Obama.

Solid and significant

Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal called the appointment a “solid and significant step”, noting that Mueller has the “guts and backbone” to stand up to any kind of political influence.

For the Trump administration, however, the appointment of a special prosecutor may spell trouble.

The White House was given just an hour’s notice of Rosenstein’s decision to appoint Mueller, with the attorney general Jeff Sessions informed only after his deputy had signed the order (Rosenstein has responsibility for all Russian investigations as Sessions was forced to recuse himself from the investigations over his failure to disclose contacts with the Russian ambassador during his Senate confirmation hearing)

The appointment raises the spectre of months of negative information and questions related to the Trump administration’s links with Russia that could stretch into next year’s mid-term elections.

Unlike the four congressional investigations currently under way in various committees, the special counsel will have the power to bring criminal action. He may also have the power to oblige the president to testify, either publicly or privately.

The development also helps to restore the reputation of Rosenstein. Although Rosenstein’s nomination was overwhelmingly backed by the Senate last month, he controversially authored the memo setting out the rationale for James Comey’s firing last week which was used by the White House to justify the former FBI chief’s dismissal. Rosenstein is due to update senators on the Comey firing on Thursday.

James Comey

In parallel, the White House is engaged in finding a successor to Comey – it is believed that White House officials heard of Mueller’s appointment as they were interviewing prospective candidates for the job.

That appointment will be closely watched, with the Trump administration under pressure to appoint a non-partisan FBI chief. Up to a dozen candidates have already been vetted, including former senator Joe Lieberman, with an announcement due imminently.

As Washington takes stock of the latest development in the Russian investigation, much focus is on what its exact scope and remit will be. While some fear a lengthy and unwieldy process, it is possible that Mueller will build on existing investigations and intelligence work already completed by the FBI.

While there was widespread support for Mueller’s appointment, the former FBI chief is seen by some as an ally of Comey, who succeeded him as head of the FBI.

Ever defiant, Trump issued a statement on Wednesday night expressing confidence that “a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know – there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity”.

He concluded: “I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country.”

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