On Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced that Robert Mueller, a former director of the F.B.I., had been appointed special prosecutor to oversee the investigation into Russian meddling in last year’s election. The appointment follows the uproar caused last week by President Trump’s sudden dismal of the F.B.I. director, James Comey. Below, New Yorker writers offer some initial reactions to the news.
Rod Rosenstein’s decision is an important indication of the shifting mood in Washington: his appointment of Robert Mueller was an act of self-protection. A career prosecutor who was criticized for lending his voice to the firing of the former F.B.I. director James Comey, Rosenstein has chosen to hand off the Russia investigation, rejecting Republican leaders’ repeated statements that such a move was unnecessary, that he should soldier on amid criticisms of his independence. This is the move of a man who does not see his fate as strictly aligned with the President’s. The question facing Republicans in Congress and others throughout the executive branch is: How many are reaching the same conclusion?
Mueller has been handed what must be described as one of the most consequential jobs in American history, and his work could take months or years to complete. But—as I’ve written—investigations beget investigations. By reputation, Mueller is a meticulous investigator and fact-finder. He inspires bipartisan political support, and has abundant experience with pressure. President Trump just lost a lever with which to shape his own future.
One short anecdote illustrates why Robert Mueller has a sterling reputation as a defender of the rule of law, and why he may be exactly the person the country needs in this tumultuous moment. Back in the first days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there was such white-hot hatred for the perpetrators and suspected terrorists that it spilled over to their American defense lawyers. In those days, even the American Civil Liberties Union backed away from providing legal defense for the detainees at Guantánamo, for fear of the political and public-relations fallout that would ensue. The few lawyers who dared represent these individuals were treated as lepers. At one Washington dinner party, as I report in my book “The Dark Side,” the issue caused guests to turn on Thomas Wilner, a well-heeled corporate law partner who had stepped forward to defend a Guantánamo detainee. According to Wilner, Tom Green, a prominent criminal-defense lawyer at the table, asked him how he could possibly justify representing such a client. Amid the chilly silence that followed, according to Wilner’s account, another guest stood up. It was Mueller, then the F.B.I. director, who raised a glass and said, “I toast Tom Wilner. He is doing what an American should.” Hopefully, Mueller will now do the same.
Just eight days ago, President Trump treated Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as a prop in a ham-handed effort to explain his sudden dismissal of the F.B.I. director, James Comey. Trump’s communications team said that the President had simply carried out the recommendation of Rosenstein, a Justice Department veteran of twenty-seven years, who was previously the United States Attorney in Maryland. The Administration offered a three-page memorandum, written by Rosenstein, as proof. Within forty-eight hours, however, Trump admitted in an interview that he decided himself to fire Comey. And word leaked that Rosenstein had threatened to resign over the White House’s gambit.
Rosenstein’s appointment of Mueller, on Wednesday, was stark proof of the breathtakingly fast dissipation of Trump’s power in Washington. A little more than a week after Trump toyed with Rosenstein, the President did not have the political power, or temerity, to try to impose himself on the Justice Department official again. A President whose arrival spread fear in the capital has been humbled by the type of career government servant he derided throughout his campaign. With startling speed, Trump is no longer feared in Washington.
Since 1976, when Congress passed a law limiting the F.B.I. director’s term to ten years, only one director, Robert Mueller, has actually served a complete term. In fact, Mueller served longer than ten years. He started the job in 2001, a week before the September 11th attacks. In 2011, a week after Osama bin Laden was killed, Barack Obama requested that the Senate extend Mueller’s term by two years. While deciding whether to approve the extension, senators called several people to testify on the matter. One was James Comey.
Comey and Mueller had known each other for years. In March, 2004, Comey, who was serving as the deputy Attorney General, and Mueller, well into his term as the head of the F.B.I., both threatened to resign unless George W. Bush changed the legal authorization for one of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs. When prompted, during his testimony in 2011, Comey said that, while he believed that term limits for F.B.I. directors helped to “reduce the risk of abuse by a long-serving and too-powerful F.B.I. director,” there was “no one that I have ever met who is better suited to the responsible use of power than Bob Mueller.”
Last week, after Trump fired Comey as the F.B.I. director, Democratic lawmakers expressed concern that Trump was scheming to shut down the investigation into possible ties between his Presidential campaign and the Russian government. That no longer seems likely.
“If the White House was trying to quash the investigation, it would have been better to leave Comey be, and then quietly pressure D.O.J. to stall and ultimately decline any significant charges,” Chris Graham, a former F.B.I. agent, told me. “Instead, the spotlight is on and Mueller should be able to run with it. He’ll get the resources he needs, can impanel grand juries, and will do so with unparalleled experience in the investigative process.”
Moments after the news broke of Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, I also contacted Neil MacBride, the former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia—the office where the Russia probe is being run. MacBride, who has known Mueller for twenty years, wrote back, “The guy is a friggin’ America hero. He led a rifle platoon in Vietnam”—Mueller served in the Marines—“he built the Pan Am 103 case”—Mueller served as a federal prosecutor for twelve years—“and he kept us safe after 9/11. Can’t think of a better choice.”
If there is one complaint about Mueller, it is one of persnicketiness. He famously wears only pressed white shirts. Agents and analysts who briefed Mueller during his directorship recall him asking questions about, say, the color of a suspect’s clothes, or the make and model of a suspect’s car. One agent observed, “He can get himself deep into the weeds.”
Yet that level of meticulousness may be just what the Russia investigation needs. The order appointing Mueller as special counsel grants him broad authority not only to investigate coördination or collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign but also “any matters that arose or may arise” from the investigation—including attempts to interfere with the investigation. MacBride told me that he expected Mueller to proceed with “dispatch and complete thoroughness.”
In 2011, after Comey testified on his behalf, Mueller received his extension. Two years later, Mueller appeared before the House Intelligence Committee. He was one of several intelligence chiefs testifying that day, and he was seated next to Michael Flynn, the Defense Intelligence Agency director at the time, who is now a subject of Mueller’s probe. Near the end of that hearing, Dutch Ruppersberger, the congressman from California, said to Mueller, “You’re retiring, what, in September?” Mueller replied, “I don’t use the word ‘retirement.’ ”