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Politics & Government

Special Counsel Appointed To Oversee FBI's Investigation Into Russia


After months of resisting calls for a special counsel to investigate Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election, the U.S. Justice Department tonight changed course. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced that former FBI Director Robert Mueller will serve as special counsel. Mueller was James Comey's predecessor and served under Presidents Bush and Obama. Now for more on what this means, we're joined by NPR congressional reporter Geoff Bennett. Hey there, Geoff.


CORNISH: So what's the rationale that Rosenstein is offering in terms of making this decision?

BENNETT: Yeah. And first, we should say Rosenstein is overseeing the FBI's Russia investigation because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. But in a statement released earlier, Rosenstein said - and I'm quoting him now - "in my capacity as acting attorney general, I determine that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter." He also says his decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. But he says the public interest requires him to place this investigation under the authority of a person who is independent from the normal chain of command.

And as you well know, calls for a special counsel have picked up since President Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey a week and a day ago and particularly, since the reporting yesterday, first by the New York Times, about the Comey memo, which suggests that Trump pressed Comey to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. So some people see this as a step that Rod Rosenstein had to take to save his own reputation, but he is scheduled to brief the entire Senate tomorrow afternoon. That briefing was previously scheduled, and this will certainly be an opportunity for senators, at least, to get some of their questions answered about all of this.

CORNISH: Now, we're going to hear more detail in a moment from one of Mueller's biographers, but I just want to get the basic CV from you about his background.

BENNETT: Well, he's a former prosecutor who served as the FBI director from 2001 to 2013. He actually took the job a week before 9/11. He's widely respected by people on both sides of the aisle. We also understand that he has agreed to resign from his private law firm in order to avoid any conflicts of interests that might exist.

CORNISH: Now, I know we're getting some reaction now from Capitol Hill, certainly, from Democrat top leaders - right? - in both the Senate and the House. What are you hearing?

BENNETT: It's all positive. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer says that Rosenstein has done the right thing. He says he now has more confidence in this Russia probe. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California - she's the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. She put out a statement and says, Bob was a fine U.S. attorney, a great FBI director and there's no better person who could be asked to perform this function.

And then you have also Senate Republicans - folks like John Cornyn, who thinks that this will ease the confirmation of the next FBI director and help turn down the temperature on some of the politics surrounding all of this because there were some Democrats who said they wouldn't vote for - to confirm the next FBI director until this outside special counsel was put in place.

CORNISH: We know, though, lawmakers have been calling for, like, independent counsels but also independent commissions. They've got their own investigations going on as we speak. Can you give us a status update on those?

BENNETT: Well, those will continue. The distinction here is that the congressional committees have no role in determining a criminal act. So the role of the congressional committees is to dig deep, to make findings, to come up with some recommendations, come up with some conclusions. But they are not in a position, unlike the FBI, to bring anyone to justice.

CORNISH: Has it changed their minds then - do you get the sense that this announcement means that they're saying, OK, maybe we don't need an independent commission?

BENNETT: I think it's still too early to say, but I would be surprised if any Democrats put out any statements in the next few hours, you know, making that point.

CORNISH: And to be fair, I also want to ask about Republicans because every time there is a new revelation - right? - they come out of a meeting, and they're met with a scrum of reporters saying, what do you think of this? Any word from that camp?

BENNETT: Well, you know, Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma - he made an interesting point. He said that he had concerns about an outside investigation. He likes the fact that Mueller will be working within the FBI structure, leaning on the career folks at the FBI, using the FBI resources, which he thinks will be a faster way to wrap up this investigation.

CORNISH: That's NPR congressional reporter Geoff Bennett. Geoff, thank you.

BENNETT: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.