The Justice Department tapped former FBI director Robert Mueller to be a special counsel overseeing the Russia investigation, the department announced Wednesday.
The news comes as President Trump and his administration grapple with the fallout from explosive revelations earlier this week that now-fired FBI director James Comey kept notes of a February meeting indicating Trump asked him to close the agency's investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
The memo, on the heels of Trump's abrupt firing of Comey last week, fueled accusations by lawmakers of possible obstruction of justice and calls for an independent prosecutor to oversee the FBI's ongoing counterintelligence probe into possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russia during the presidential campaign.
"I determined that it is on the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Wednesday. "My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted."
Mueller is a great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted.— Jason Chaffetz (@jasoninthehouse) May 17, 2017
Based on the "unique circumstances," Rosenstein said, "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."
Key Republicans lawmakers immediately welcomed the announcement. "Mueller is a great selection. Impeccable credentials. Should be widely accepted," tweeted Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chair of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform committee.
Mueller, who preceded Comey as FBI director, was the longest serving director since J. Edgar Hoover. He served two additional years beyond his 10-year term, to ensure stability during a transition period in President Obama's national security team.
His appointment in the Russia investigation, the Justice Department said Wednesday, was made through the special counsel statute. It was exercised only once before, in 1999, when then-Attorney General appointed Former Missouri Sen Jack Danforth investigation into FBI handling of government raid on Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas.
Mueller will resign from his private firm to avoid any conflicts of interest with firm clients or attorneys, the Justice Department said.
In his special counsel role, Mueller assumes all the powers of a federal prosecutor – including subpoena authority.
"I have determined that a special counsel is necessary in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome," Rosenstein said. "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."
Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney fired by President Trump earlier this year, praised the selection of Mueller. "Having known him for years, I believe special counsel Mueller is a very good thing," Bharara said on Twitter. "He is one of the best – independent and no-nonsense."
The White House offered no immediate comment. Administration officials there could be seen racing in and out of West Wing offices, formulating a response to the new development.
White House officials such press secretary Sean Spicer had said as recently as Tuesday there was no need for a special counsel.
The intelligence community has accused Moscow of orchestrating a campaign of cyberattacks against Democratic political organizations during the elections, and leaking them to websites such as WikiLeaks with the goal of undermining Hillary Clinton's campaign and public confidence in the democratic process.