Former FBI director Robert Mueller has been named special counsel in the agency’s investigation of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.
“I have determined that a Special Counsel is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement Wednesday.
The appointment comes as Washington reels from political developments including President Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI director James Comey and a New York Times report that Comey was asked by the president to drop the bureau’s investigation of Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser.
“My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted,” Rosenstein said. “I have made no such determination.”
As special counsel, Mueller would be free to choose how closely to work with the Justice Department and he will have greater autonomy than a U.S. attorney.
After the announcement, Trump again denied his campaign worked with Russia in any way.
“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.
“I look forward to this matter concluding quickly,” the president added.
Mueller served from 2001 to 2013, under a Republican and a Democratic president.
He is known for his no-nonsense, gruff management style is credited with saving the bureau after 9/11, when it was suggested the agency be dismantled and a separate domestic entity be established.
Mueller had only been in his office one week when terrorists downed jetliners in New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania.
Democrats welcomed the appointment and have been calling for an independent counsel to lead the investigation.
“Rosenstein has done the right thing,” said Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer of New York.
“I now have significantly greater confidence that the investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from San Francisco, knows Mueller from his years of service as a U.S. attorney in the Bay Area.
There is “no better person who could be asked to perform this function,” the House Democratic leader said. “He is respected, he is talented and he has the knowledge and the ability to do the right thing.”
John Ashcroft, who served as Attorney General under George W. Bush, praised Mueller in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
“It’s impossible to think about Washington without politics blowing people off course,” Ashcroft said. “But if anyone can stay on course and not be deterred by the whims of politics, it’s Bob Mueller.”
“He won’t be swayed by the barking dogs. He’ll go after the facts.”
Mueller said he will resign from his law firm, WilmerHale.
The appointment of Mueller marked the first time the Justice Department has picked an outside special prosecutor since 1999, when Attorney General Janet Reno hired former Sen. John Danforth to investigate the deadly standoff at in Waco, Texas at the Branch Davidian complex.