The Justice Department on Wednesday named a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, to take over the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and possible collusion between Russian agents and associates of President Trump.
The move heightened the legal and political stakes for the president and his young administration. It came after days of allegations against Trump himself raised new questions about whether administration officials could oversee an inquiry that has the president at its center, facing new suggestions he may have tried to obstruct the FBI’s investigation.
“My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that prosecution is warranted," Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein said in announcing the appointment. "I have made no such determination."
But, he said, a special counsel is necessary in order for the “American people to have full confidence in the outcome” of the investigation.
“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 wrote.
The president, in a statement, reiterated his innocence of any wrongdoing.
“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,” Trump said.
“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.”
Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Justice Department’s Russia investigation because Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions recused himself, did not inform either the White House or Sessions about the decision until after he had signed the order appointing Mueller, according to a Justice Department spokesperson who spoke on condition of anonymity.
About half an hour before the order was made public, a Justice Department official informed White House Counsel Donald McGahn. Trump spokesman Sean Spicer abruptly left a scheduled meeting with reporters as White House aides huddled to decide their response.
As recently as Monday, Spicer had insisted that “there's frankly no need for a special prosecutor" when reporters pressed him about calls in Congress for such an appointment.
Mueller, a former federal prosecutor who served as U.S. attorney in San Francisco under President Clinton and was named FBI director by President George W. Bush, is well regarded as a nonpartisan figure. He was FBI director for 12 years, kept on by President Obama.
In the Bush administration, Mueller worked with James B. Comey, who would become his successor as FBI director, and who was fired last week by Trump.
His appointment drew praise from Democrats who have been demanding an independent counsel.
“Rosenstein has done the right thing.” Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said. “I now have significantly greater confidence that the investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead."
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco offered more measured approval.
“A special prosecutor is the first step, but it cannot be the last,” she said. “He cannot take the place of a truly independent, outside commission that is completely free from the Trump administration’s meddling.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who knows Mueller well from his years in the Bay Area, her base, said there was “no better person who could be asked to perform this function. He is respected, he is talented, and he has the knowledge and ability to do the right thing.”
Former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, who worked closely with Mueller in the Bush administration, praised the choice in an interview.
“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.”
Some Republicans, however, were less enthusiastic.
"It’s fine," said Rep. Peter King of New York, who called Mueller a "solid guy."
"I just don’t think there is any need for it,” he added.
Pressure on Rosenstein to name a special counsel built quickly last week after Trump fired Comey. It mounted even further on Tuesday when news broke that Trump had asked Comey in February to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, his former national security advisor, according to a memo that Comey wrote after he and the president met.
Mueller will be able to hire a staff and request funding from the Justice Department. To avoid conflicts of interest, he will resign from his law firm, WilmerHale.
Hours before the news, Trump had defiantly signaled that he would fight any allegations against him.
“No politician in history … has been treated worse or more unfairly," he told graduates in an aside during a commencement speech Wednesday at the Coast Guard Academy.
“The people understand what I’m doing, and that’s the most important thing,” he told cheering cadets at the New London, Conn., ceremony.
“I didn’t get elected to serve the Washington media or special interests. I got elected to serve the forgotten men and women of our country, and that’s what I’m doing.”
One of Trump’s closest allies, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in an interview before the Mueller appointment, called this a “surrender or fight” moment for Republicans who control Congress. He implored them to come to Trump’s defense or else see their power lost to Democrats.
“Republicans in general — not just Trump — are in a crossroads," said Gingrich. "And if they don’t get their act together, Pelosi is going to become speaker and she's going to impeach Trump.”
Gingrich, who as speaker led the impeachment of Clinton, said congressional Republicans are “totally rattled." He suggested the White House should stop engaging with the media completely, ending daily press briefings, an idea Trump has floated on Twitter.
White House aides and surrogates were notably absent from cable television programs on Wednesday, and Spicer, whose job is widely reported to be at risk, conducted his press briefing off camera for the second day in a row. He spent fewer than five minutes responding to questions and was joined by Kellyanne Conway, a senior White House advisor, who sat silently behind him during a briefing aboard Air Force One for reporters traveling with the president.
On Wednesday, besides traveling to Connecticut, Trump interviewed candidates to replace Comey, including former Sen. Joe Lieberman, a hawkish Democrat-turned-independent.
Trump departs on his first overseas trip as president this weekend, making the almost constant air of crisis around the White House even more problematic.
Trump is scheduled to visit the Middle East and Europe over eight days that will test his abilities on the world stage and measure how deeply his many political problems have damaged his stature abroad.
His domestic travails are sure to follow him and cloud the diplomatic trip.
On Wednesday, two Senate committees — the Intelligence and Judiciary panels — requested all memos at the FBI related to Trump’s contacts with Comey.
According to Comey associates, he kept notes of his meetings and phone conversations with Trump, in part because he was worried that their interactions could be improper amid the FBI’s investigation begun last summer into whether Trump associates colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.
The Senate Intelligence Committee also asked Comey to testify, and a House committee likewise has begun an investigation.
Comey’s testimony could take place as early as next week, setting up a scenario in which Trump could be responding to allegations of misconduct even as he meets with fellow heads of state.
Staff writers Lisa Mascaro, Michael Memoli and David Lauter contributed.