WASHINGTON — In a potential threat to the young Trump presidency, a Justice Department official on Wednesday named a highly regarded former FBI director to oversee the federal investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
“I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability,” newly appointed special counsel Robert Mueller said in statement.
The appointment gives Mueller sweeping powers to investigate whether Trump campaign associates colluded with Russia to influence the outcome in his behalf, as well as the authority to prosecute any crimes uncovered during the probe.
He’s also empowered to probe “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” — meaning he can explore the circumstances of last week’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, and reports that Trump had asked Comey to drop his investigation into a top Trump aide.
In a statement, Trump maintained “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,” he said.
Mueller was named special counsel by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who had been placed in charge of the Russia investigation after his boss Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself.
Officials said neither Sessions nor the White House were informed of the move beforehand.
Rosenstein said the move was “necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome. Our nation is grounded on the rule of law, and the public must be assured that government officials administer the law fairly.”
The move is one Democrats had demanded since the moment Trump abruptly fired Comey. They argued that Rosenstein had to recuse himself because of his role in Comey’s firing.
The appointment drew immediate bipartisan praise, as officials from across the political spectrum said it would relieve concerns that an impartial investigation wouldn’t be carried out.
“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,” former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who was also fired by Trump, tweeted after the announcement.
“I now have significantly greater confidence that the investigation will follow the facts wherever they lead,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.
“Mueller is a great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) tweeted.
Mueller, 72, was appointed director of the FBI by President George W. Bush in 2001 and served until 2013.
He’s known for a fierce independent streak: Along with Comey, he had threatened to resign from office if Bush overruled a Justice Department finding that warrantless wiretapping was unconstitutional.
The move comes after a disastrous week-plus for Trump, which includes his firing of Comey, changing stories about why he was fired, the passing of highly sensitive intelligence to Russian diplomats and reports that Trump asked Comey to shut down an investigation into his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Speaking at a Coast Guard Academy graduation ceremony in New London, Conn., before the announcement, Trump portrayed himself as a victim, even though most of his wounds from the past week have been self-inflicted.
“Look at the way I’ve been treated lately, especially by the media,” he said.
“No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.”
And there’s more potential bad news on the horizon for the President — the heads of three congressional committees have demanded copies of all memos Comey wrote about his interactions with Trump, and asked Comey to testify publicly about their dealings.
Comey turned down an invite to speak in a private hearing this week, and reportedly wants to testify publicly.
Rosenstein, meanwhile, is scheduled to appear before the full Senate on Thursday to explain his role in Comey’s firing, after Trump used letters from him and Sessions as initial justification for why he canned Comey.
With News Wire Services
With ADAM EDELMAN