WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump last night assailed the appointment of Mr Robert Mueller, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director, as special counsel to oversee the investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow during last year’s presidential race. He called it the “single greatest witch hunt”.
He tweeted: “With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!” He did not provide examples or evidence of any alleged “illegal acts”.
“This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” he said.
Mr Mueller’s appointment by the Justice Department a day earlier had dramatically raised the legal and political stakes in an affair that has threatened to engulf the four-month-old presidency.
Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein announced the appointment after a series of damaging developments for Mr Trump in recent days, including his abrupt dismissal of FBI director James Comey, and the subsequent disclosure that the President had asked Mr Comey to drop the
investigation of Mr Flynn.
Mr Rosenstein had been under escalating pressure from Democrats, and even some Republicans, to appoint a special counsel after he wrote a memo that the White House initially cited as the rationale for Mr Comey’s dismissal.
By appointing Mr Mueller, a former federal prosecutor with an unblemished reputation, Mr Rosenstein could alleviate uncertainty about the government’s ability to investigate the questions surrounding the Trump campaign and the Russians.
A day earlier, Mr Trump initially used the appointment to rally his team to unite, move on and refocus on his stalled agenda, said a senior White House official.
“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,” said Mr Trump in a statement.
Meanwhile, it was reported that former national security adviser Michael Flynn and other advisers to the Trump campaign were in contact with Russian officials in at least 18 calls and emails during the past seven months of the 2016 presidential race, according to current and former American officials familiar with the exchanges.
Six of the previously undisclosed contacts described to Reuters were phone calls between Mr Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s Ambassador to the United States, and Trump advisers, including Mr Flynn.
Conversations between Mr Flynn and Mr Kislyak accelerated after the Nov 8 vote as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Mr Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the US national security bureaucracy, which both sides considered hostile to improved relations, said four current American officials.
While Mr Mueller remains answerable to Mr Rosenstein — and by extension, the President — he will have greater autonomy to run an investigation than other federal prosecutors.
As a special counsel, Mr Mueller can choose whether to consult with or inform the Justice Department about his investigation. He is authorised to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump”, according to Mr Rosenstein’s order naming him to the post, as well as other matters that “may arise directly from the investigation”. He is empowered to press criminal charges, and he can request additional resources subject to the review of an assistant attorney-general.
Mr Rosenstein, who until recently was US attorney in Maryland, took control of the investigation because Attorney-General Jeff Sessions recused himself after acknowledging he had failed to disclose meetings he had with Mr Kislyak, when Mr Sessions was an adviser to the Trump campaign.
Mr Mueller’s appointment was hailed by Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, who view him as one of the most credible law enforcement officials in the country.
He is renowned inside the Justice Department for being a senior prosecutor under the elder former president George Bush, and then returning years later as a working-level prosecutor in Washington.
“He came in as a line assistant, and he was legendary. He was the first guy there every day,” said Mr Preston Burton, a Washington defence lawyer who served in the US attorney’s office with Mr Mueller. “All of a sudden he’s doing street crime? Literal street crime. He’s inexhaustible. He’s the embodiment of integrity.”
WHAT IS A SPECIAL COUNSEL?
How the special counsel compares with other possible investigating bodies:
Bipartisan, made up of members of Congress.
A select committee would be made up of current members of Congress, and therefore has the potential to be more political than an independent commission, which would be filled with outside experts. Both of these options would have fact-finding missions.
Example: House select committee on events surrounding a 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Bipartisan, made up of experts from outside government.
Example: 9/11 Commission.
Appointed by Justice Department.
Example: Mr Robert Mueller.
The select committee and special counsel are easier to initiate than an independent commission because they do not require the president’s signature. However, some legal experts consider them potentially less independent than other options.
While Mr Mueller will enjoy more day-to-day autonomy than a US attorney usually has, he still falls under the supervision of the attorney-general, who could overrule important decisions. The president could order the attorney-general to fire Mr Mueller, and fire the attorney-general if he refuses. AGENCIES