Former FBI director appointed 'special counsel' to oversee Russia investigation

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Former FBI Director Robert Mueller will lead the investigation into possible Russian interference into the 2016 election. (Charles Dharapak)

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller to serve as "Special Counsel to oversee the previously-confirmed FBI investigation of Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, and related matters."

Rosenstein is acting Attorney General in the case because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself.

Mueller will have all of the authorities of a U.S. attorney -- including ability to take the matter before a grand jury and ability to issue subpoenas.

After the announcement, President Donald Trump said a thorough investigation will confirm what he says is already known: that there was no collusion between his presidential campaign and any foreign entity. Trump said in a written statement that he looks forward to "this matter concluding quickly."

In a written statement of his own, Mueller said only: "I accept this responsibility".

Sen. Richard Burr, R-NC, Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA, Vice Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, released a statement following Mueller's appointment.

"The appointment of former FBI Director and respected lawyer Robert Mueller as special counsel for the Russia investigation is a positive development and will provide some certainty for the American people that the investigation will proceed fairly and free of political influence. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will continue its own investigation and to the extent any deconfliction is required, we will engage with Director Mueller and our expectation is that he will engage with the Committee as well."

The appointment came as Democrats insisted ever more loudly that someone outside Trump's Justice Department must handle the politically charged investigation. An increasing number of Republicans, too, have joined in calling for Congress to dig deeper, especially after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey who had been leading the bureau's probe.

Earlier Wednesday, Trump complained in a commencement address that "no politician in history" has been treated worse by his foes, even as exasperated fellow Republicans slowly joined the clamor for an significant investigation into whether he tried to quash the FBI's probe.

Wednesday's announcement followed the revelation Tuesday that Comey wrote in a memo that Trump had asked him to end an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Rosenstein said in statement: "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. My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination. 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. ... a Special Counsel is 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. Special Counsel Mueller will have all appropriate resources to conduct a thorough and complete investigation, and I am confident that he will follow the facts, apply the law and reach a just result."
Mueller is resigning from his law firm in order to avoid any conflicts of interest with firm clients or attorneys. He was appointed FBI director in 2001 and led the FBI through the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He retired in 2013.

Three congressional committees, all led by Republicans, have confirmed they want to hear from Comey. Congressional investigators are seeking Comey's memos, as well as documents from the Justice Department related to the firing.

MORE: New special counsel Robert Mueller has long history at the FBI

Many Democrats also were calling for an independent special counsel, or prosecutor.

The latest political storm, coupled with the still-potent fallout from Trump's recent disclosure of classified information to Russian diplomats, overshadowed all else in the capital and beyond. Stocks fell sharply on Wall Street as investors worried that the latest turmoil in Washington could hinder Trump's pro-business agenda.

Republicans, frustrated by the president's relentless parade of problems, largely sought to cool the heated climate with assurances they would get to the bottom of scandals.

"There's clearly a lot of politics being played," House Speaker Paul Ryan said. "Our job is to get the facts and to be sober about doing that."

Unimpressed, Rep. Elijah Cummings, top Democrat on a key House oversight panel, said, "Speaker Ryan has shown he has zero, zero, zero appetite for any investigation of Donald Trump. He accused the Republicans of taking great pains to "do as little as humanly possible, just to claim that they're doing something."

Interest was hardly limited to the U.S. No less a commentator than Russia's Vladimir Putin called the dramatic charges swirling around Trump evidence of "political schizophrenia spreading in the U.S." He offered to furnish a "record" of the Trump-diplomats meeting in the Oval Office if the White House desired it.

There was no word on what that record might entail, a question many were likely to raise in light of Trump's recent warning to Comey that he had "better hope" there were no tapes of a discussion they'd had.

The White House disputed Comey's account of the February conversation concerning Flynn, but did not offer specifics. Several members of Congress said that if Trump did suggest that Comey "let this go" regarding Flynn's Russian contacts, it was probably just a joke, light banter.

White House aides mostly kept a rare low profile, avoiding going on television. Trump did not offer any commentary on Twitter and did not directly address the controversies during a commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy, though he delivered a broadside against the forces he sees as working against him.

"No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly," he said. "You can't let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams. ... I guess that's why we won. Adversity makes you stronger. Don't give in, don't back down. ... And the more righteous your fight, the more opposition that you will face."

Questions about Trump's conduct have been mounting for weeks, most recently with two explosive revelations - that in February the president pressed Comey to drop a federal investigation into Flynn's contacts with Russia and that he disclosed classified information to the senior Russian officials last week.'

Both allegations came from anonymous sources, and the White House was quick to denounce the leaks and deny any impropriety, insisting the president never tried to squelch the Flynn investigation nor did he make inappropriate disclosures to the Russians.

Putin, watching from afar, said the "evolving political struggle" had gone from something of an amusement to serious cause for concern, and he suggested Trump's critics were stoking anti-Russian sentiment to damage the president.

"These people either don't understand that they are hurting their own country, and in that case they are just dumb," Putin said. "Or they do understand everything, and that means that they are dangerous and unscrupulous."

On Capitol Hill, Comey was clearly the man in demand, with three committees working to seat him at their witness tables.

- The House oversight committee set a May 24 hearing on whether Trump interfered in the FBI probe, and invited Comey to testify.

-The Senate intelligence committee invited Comey to appear in both open and closed sessions. It also asked acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe to give the committee any notes Comey might have made regarding discussions he had with White House or Justice Department officials about Russia's efforts to influence the election.

-Top members of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked the FBI to provide any Comey memos and asked the White House to turn over any audio recordings that might exist of conversations with the now-fired director. They expect to bring in Comey in to testify, as well.

Trump is preparing to leave town Friday on his first foreign trip, and aides have been hopeful the journey will be a chance for the administration to get back on track after weeks of chaos and distractions.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speculated Trump was probably happy to get out of town - "and a lot of us are glad he's leaving for a few days."

His advice to the president: "Stay disciplined, stay focused and deliver on the world stage."

ABC News and the Associated Press contributed to this report

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