Surprise: Rod Rosenstein appoints former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead DOJ's Russia investigation; Update: Flynn, Manafort "key figures"

A smart move by a guy whose memo criticizing Comey over Emailgate called for restoring public trust in the FBI and, by extension, the DOJ. Mueller has all the bipartisan cred you could want, having served seven years under Bush and six more under Obama. And as a former FBI director, his appointment reassures the Bureau that someone in whom it has confidence will be in charge of the Russia probe, guaranteeing its integrity.


It’s good news for Trump too — if he’s telling the truth about having had nothing to do with Russia during the campaign. Democrats won’t be able to second-guess Obama’s own FBI chief if he gives Trump a clean bill of legal health. If he isn’t telling the truth about having had nothing to do with Russia, well, then he’s in deep sh*t.

Under the order signed Wednesday by Rosenstein, Mueller is tasked with investigating “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump’’ as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation’’ and any other matters that fall under the scope of the Justice Department regulation covering special counsel appointments.

“If the special counsel believes it is necessary and appropriate, the special counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters,’’ the order states.

Officials said the appointment was being made under a Justice Department statute that has only been used once, in 1999, though the Justice Department has made other special counsel appointments more recently under different authority.

Rosenstein’s taken a beating publicly ever since he sent that memo the White House about Comey. The memo never explicitly called for terminating Comey, and Rosenstein was reportedly unhappy afterward that Trump and his spokesmen had invoked him as a catalyst for the decision. Trump critics blamed him for drafting the memo knowing that it would obviously be used as a fig leaf to justify canning Comey. Appointing Mueller will be read as a bold countermove by Rosenstein to restore his reputation: The White House made him look like a political hack by pinning the Comey thing on him so now he’s handing the Russia investigation to Comey’s predecessor to prove that he isn’t one.


That may be selling Rosenstein short, though. I’m remembering this Twitter thread by a lawyer who used to work at the DOJ and who insisted last week, while everyone else was piling on Rosenstein over the memo, not to assume that he was in the tank for Trump. On the contrary, he speculated, Rosenstein might be preparing … to appoint a special counsel:

And in fact, in tonight’s letter announcing Mueller’s appointment, Rosenstein argued that “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” and that a special counsel “is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome.” This may not be a matter of revenge on Trump for making him a patsy in the Comey firing, in other words, so much as the act of someone who really does worry about the DOJ’s credibility. That’s the common thread between his Comey memo and tonight’s news.


Although … maybe there’s a little bit of revenge at work:

That feels like an assertion of independence by Rosenstein, another move to build credibility for the special counsel. A political toady would have given the White House plenty of time to prepare their reaction as a courtesy. A prosecutor who wants to signal that he intends to exert his authority free of political control pulls this “oh, by the way” move.

Exit question: How does Trump react? And which one of his staffers will have the job of warning him not to ask Mueller to go easy on Mike Flynn?

Update: Sean Spicer, two days ago.

Update: Sounds like Mueller’s prime targets will be Mike Flynn and Paul Manafort. Not surprising, but significant insofar as they were both major players in Trump’s campaign.

Officials say multiple grand jury subpoenas and records requests have been issued in connection with the two men during the past six months in the ongoing probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian attempts to influence the election, an inquiry that will now be overseen by former FBI Director Robert Mueller.

The FBI, with the help of the Treasury Department, the CIA and other agencies, is examining evidence of possible contacts, money transfers and business relationships between a variety of Trump associates and Russian officials, the sources say. The investigation goes well beyond Flynn, Manafort and a possible American connection, to include how Russian intelligence services carried out the campaign of fake news and leaking hacked emails that intelligence officials say was meant to hurt Hillary Clinton and benefit Donald Trump…

Law enforcement officials tell NBC News that both Flynn and Manafort are formally considered “subjects” of a criminal investigation, though their lawyers say they have done nothing wrong. A subject generally is someone investigators suspect of a crime.


Note the detail about grand jury subpoenas having issued in connection with Flynn over the past six months. That’s a potentially significant detail in the argument that Trump obstructed justice by talking to Comey about Flynn in February. Typically, you can’t be found to have committed obstruction unless there’s a judicial proceeding pending. Had a grand jury already been called to investigate Flynn when Trump and Comey had their chat? And did Trump know that? The answers are important.

Update: Low key from the president:

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