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US names former FBI director to head probe into Trump camp's Russia links

Former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel in a surprise move.

world Updated: May 18, 2017 22:11 IST
Yashwant Raj
Former FBI director Robert Mueller
Former FBI director Robert Mueller (Reuters File Photo)

In a sudden escalation in the ongoing Russia controversy swirling around this White House, the US department of justice appointed Robert Mueller, a highly regarded former FBI director, as special counsel to investigate links between Trump campaign and Russian government and entities.

Muller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has direct oversight over the FBI and whose recommendation was initially cited for President Donald Trump’s firing of Jim Comey last week as the agency’s director. He did not clear the appointment with his boss and Trump ally Attorney General Jeff Session or the president.

Appointment of a special counsel is rare — the last one was more than a decade ago — and can be dangerous potentially as the office comes with very broad powers, with the mandate to look under every stone and pebble that can turn up unexpected results such as Monica Lewinsky during the unrelated investigation of President Bill Clinton by a special counsel in 1998.

There is already a daily dribble of fresh revelations. According to news reports, the Trump transition team knew FBI was probing Michael Flynn before he was named national security advisor and there were at least 18 previously undisclosed contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians officials or those with Kremlin contacts.

Flynn, for his part, has refused to honour the Senate Intelligence Committee’s subpoena seeking documents, the Associated Press reported on Thursday, citing the panel’s Republican chairman.

Rosenstein said in a statement that based upon the “unique circumstances” and in public interest he determined the investigation had to be placed under the authority of “a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command” and who will have “have all appropriate resources to conduct a thorough and complete investigation”.

Mueller’s brief, as stated with the announcement, is to investigate “any links and or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and (significantly, the reason why the White House would be worried) … any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation”.

After a sober first statement on Wednesday, Trump lashed out with characteristic aggression on Thursday morning. “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special councel (sic) appointed!” he wrote on Twitter, adding, “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

Trump, who was told of Mueller’s appointment after it had been signed, said in a statement on Wednesday, “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. 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.”

The special counsel appointment came a day after reports surfaced of the president asking fired FBI director James Comey to end the investigation of Flynn’s interactions with Russians at a meeting in the Oval Office, the day after Flynn was fired in February. “I hope you can let this go,” Trump had told Comey, according to notes of that meeting kept by the latter.

Mueller’s appointment was welcomed by both Democrats and Republicans, in a testimony to his reputation. “Former director Mueller is exactly the right kind of individual to serve as special counsel in the Russia investigation,” Chuck Schumer, leader of Democrats in the Senate, said in a statement, adding, “I now have significantly greater confidence that the investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead.”

Preet Bharara, former US attorney for Southern District of New York, gave Muller a glowing review as well. “Having known him for years, I believe special counsel Mueller is a very good thing. He is one of the best -- independent and no-nonsense,” he wrote in a post on Twitter.

Mueller, who was appointed to head the FBI by Republican president George W Bush in 2001 — taking charge just a week after the September 11 terrorist attacks — went on to serve for 12 years, is known to have stood up to the Bush White House. That was to resisting the extension of a post-9/11 domestic spying programme, together with then attorney General John Ashcroft and his deputy Attorney James Comey. Now he will, as special counsel, carry forward Comey’s investigation of Trump campaign’s Russia links, if any.

Mueller is said to have built the present FBI swatting away attempts to dismember the investigating agency by those looking for men, women and institutions to blame for the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Special Counsel unbundled
  • What is a special counsel?A special counsel, or special prosecutor, is a lawyer appointed by the justice department — according to a system in place since 1999 — to pursue a specific case outside the usual chain of command, with independent powers to take the investigations through any course deemed necessary.
  • Some famous Special CounselsArchibald Cox, a law professor appointed by President Richard Nixon to investigate his White House in the Watergate scandal. The president could appoint one back then, a process that has undergone multiple changes since. Then, Ken Starr who investigated President Bill Clinton.
  • Why this could get tricky for TrumpWith broad powers to steer the investigation into any direction deemed necessary, special counsel can often times stumble upon unexpected findings. White House intern Monica Lewinsky’s relationship was discovered during the unrelated probe of President Clinton. Muller could, experts are arguing, ask for Trump’s tax returns, for instance, which he has refused to release.