WASHINGTON, U.S. - In a bid to reassert the traditional independence of the Federal Bureau of Investigation that was tested by FBI Director James Comey’s dismissal by U.S. President Donald Trump earlier last week - the Russia probe now has a new face.
Citing his unimpeachable integrity, in a bold move, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has named former FBI boss Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the Russia inquiry.
Rosenstein, who came under harsh criticism for doing the White House’s bidding after he drafted a memo criticizing Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe last year - has now drawn bipartisan praise for his move and has managed to salvage his bruised reputation.
Rosenstein’s memo was used as a justification for the FBI chief’s dismissal by the White House, before Trump sabotaged the White House press operation that was trying to defend him, taking matters into his own hand and even blindsiding his own vice president with his shifting reasoning.
Reports have now noted that Rosenstein’s move to appoint Mueller has managed to restore credibility to the contentious federal probe into Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
He has also managed to ease days of building political tension in Washington following shocking revelations that have threatened both the Trump administration and his Presidency.
The decision also distances the probe from Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who earlier this year, recused himself from any role in the inquiry after reports stated that, much like Flynn, Sessions too had failed to disclose conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
After firing Comey, in a televised interview, Trump suggested that Comey's investigation into links between his presidential campaign and Russia were indeed the reason he was fired.
In a tweetstorm that followed, Trump seemed to suggest he had a Nixon-style White House taping operation - and warned Comey against making any negative leaks about him to the media.
He tweeted, “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Subsequently, a report claimed that Trump demanded a loyalty pledge from Comey, leading to critics lambasting the President, claiming he was guilty of a grotesque abuse of power.
Another report, citing notes maintained by Comey claimed that Trump had asked him to drop an investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Officials have now noted that the deputy attorney general notified the White House of Mueller’s appointment only after he signed the order designating him as special counsel.
Rosenstein, who released the order to the media and said in a statement, “What I have determined is that 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.”
Comey’s firing to come up?
Mueller was appointed director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation by George W. Bush a week before the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
He had been credited with transforming the FBI after Congress and an independent government commission concluded that the agency and the CIA had failed to share information before the attacks that could have helped thwart them.
Mueller, as the head of FBI, added more resources into the counterterrorism investigations and improved its cooperation with other federal agencies.
Before becoming FBI director, Mueller was chief of the Justice Department's criminal division.
Mueller served 10 years as FBI chief under Bush and his Democratic successor Barack Obama, who even signed a legislation to extend Mueller's FBI term for another two years.
He was succeeded by Comey as the FBI director.
Experts believe that Mueller is likely to probe the circumstances surrounding Comey’s firing too.
Comey and Mueller served together in the George W. Bush administration and were the protagonists in the dramatic showdown of 2004 at the hospital bedside of then Attorney General John Ashcroft, who had handed his authority to his deputy, Comey, while he was in intensive care.
In a dramatic move that he is till date credited with - Comey, upon learning that then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales and Chief of Staff Andy Card planned to seek the ailing Ashcroft’s signature on a measure continuing a controversial and classified warrantless eavesdropping program - Comey stopped them after rushing to the hospital.
Comey later testified that he had reportedly called Mueller on the way to the hospital for backing and FBI agents on site were ordered “not to allow me to be removed from the room under any circumstance.”
Ashcroft woke up long enough to reject the proposal and remind the White House aides that Comey was in charge.
Now, in his role as the special counsel in the probe, Mueller has been given broad powers to issue subpoenas, present evidence to a grand jury, call witnesses and bring charges - all the powers of a federal prosecutor.
His authority extends broadly to include “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.”
Mueller’s appointment lauded
While the move comes as a soothing relief for Republicans surrounded by much drama - it also managed to grant Democrats their key demand for the inquiry to be managed by someone untainted by White House ties.
In a statement, Matthew Axelrod, a top aide to ex-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates who was fired by Trump in January, "Mueller has unimpeachable integrity. He’ll do the job thoroughly, doggedly and professionally, and that’s what you want."
Commenting on the appointment, Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said on Twitter, “Mueller is a great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted.”
Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, said, “I think that’s probably a good choice. I’ve been impressed by him.”
Senator Dianne Feinstein, ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, called the selection “excellent.”
Meanwhile, reacting to Mueller’s appointment, in a brief statement issued to reporters, Trump said, “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.”