Justice Department appoints former FBI Director Mueller as special counsel in Russia probe

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Wednesday appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, including potential collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russian officials.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller to the position in a letter obtained by CNN. Attorney General Jeff Sessions previously recused himself from any involvement in the Russia investigation due to his role as a prominent campaign adviser and surrogate.

As special counsel, Mueller is “authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters,” according to the Justice Department order Rosenstein signed.

Mueller’s appointment aims to quell the wave of criticism that President Donald Trump and his administration have faced since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last week in the middle of the FBI’s intensifying investigation into contacts between Trump campaign associates and Russian officials. That criticism swelled on Tuesday evening as excerpts of a memo Comey wrote in February surfaced, in which Comey writes Trump asked him to drop the FBI investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

That news intensified demands from Democrats on Capitol Hill for the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel or prosecutor to oversee the case. Republicans on Tuesday evening began to join those calls.

“In my capacity as acting attorney general, I determined that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a Special Counsel to assume responsibility for this matter,” Rosenstein said in a statement, adding that the decision is “not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted.”

“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,” Rosenstein said.

Rosenstein said he believes a special counsel “is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome.”

Mueller was appointed FBI Director by President George W. Bush in 2001 and served until 2013, when Comey took over as head. He will resign from his private law firm to avoid any conflicts of interest, the Justice Department said.

This story is breaking and will be updated.