FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed as a special counsel to lead a federal investigation on whether Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to tilt the 2016 election in his favor. Mueller will have sweeping powers and the authority to prosecute any crimes he uncovers.
The move by the Justice Department, which had resisted increasingly loud calls from Democrats for an outside prosecutor, was surprising and came as current and former US officials familiar with the exchanges told Reuters that Michael Flynn and other advisers to Trump’s campaign were in contact with Russian officials and others with Kremlin ties in at least 18 calls and emails during the last seven months of the presidential race.
The previously undisclosed interactions form part of the record now being reviewed by FBI and congressional investigators probing Russian interference in the election and contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who made the announcement on Mueller’s appointment, said: “Based upon the unique circumstances, 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.”
The White House counsel’s office was alerted only after the order appointing Mueller was signed, said a senior White House official, who was not authorized to speak publicly by name.
In a written statement, Trump insisted anew there were no nefarious ties between his campaign and Russia.
“A thorough investigation will confirm what we already know — there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity,” he declared. “I look forward to this matter concluding quickly.”
Mueller’s broad mandate gives him not only oversight of the Russia probe, but also “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” That would surely include Trump’s firing last week of FBI Director James Comey.
The president has been accused of seeking to block the investigation by sacking Comey.
The people who described the contacts to Reuters said they had seen no evidence of wrongdoing or collusion between the campaign and Russia in the communications reviewed so far. But the disclosure could increase the pressure on Trump and his aides to provide the FBI and Congress with a full account of interactions with Russian officials and others with links to the Kremlin during and immediately after the 2016 election.