Former FBI director Robert Mueller attends the ceremonial swearing-in of former FBI Director James Comey in 2013. Mueller has been tapped to serve as special counsel to the Justice Department's investigation into the Trump administration and Russia's hacking of the 1016 election. File photo by Alex Wong/UPI | License Photo
May 17 (UPI) -- The Justice Department on Wednesday appointed Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, to serve as special counsel for the department's investigation into Russia's election hacking and whether the Trump campaign colluded in that effort.
The announcement came from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Mueller is highly regarded in Washington circles -- among both Democrats and Republicans -- as one of the nation's most credible law enforcement officials.
In a statement released after Rosenstein's announcement, President Donald Trump said he awaits the results of a speedy investigation.
"As I have stated many times, a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know -- there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity," the statement reads. "I look forward to this matter concluding quickly."
In a brief statement, Mueller said: "I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability."
Mueller does not have the same autonomy as a special prosecutor, an individual appointed by the Justice Department who acts entirely beyond the department's control to handle investigations where there could be a conflict of interest.
Because he was hired by the Justice Department he is ultimately accountable to Trump and could be fired on his order, as the previous head of the investigation, former FBI Director James Comey, was earlier this month.
Mueller does, however, have the same legal authority as a government lawyer to issue subpoenas and can act on his own discretion on whether to inform members of the administration about the investigation's progress -- authority not granted to a U.S. attorney under the Justice Department's chain of command.
Mueller's appointment comes after weeks of Democratic lawmakers calling on the administration to empower an independent investigation into Russia's cyberattacks against Hillary Clinton and other Democratic groups -- and whether Trump's campaign colluded with the Russians in that effort.
Thus far, no evidence to that effect has been uncovered, a fact Rosenstein highlighted in announcing Mueller's appointment.
"I determined that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authorities and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter," Rosenstein said in a statement. "My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination."
Rosenstein is the top official at the Justice Department responsible for overseeing the investigation after Jeff Sessions, Trump's attorney general, recused himself from the Russia probe.
Mueller agreed to resign from his job at a private law firm, Wilmer Hale, to avoid conflicts of interest.
Initial response from top Democrats included praise for Mueller as the Justice Department's choice to lead the investigation, though House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she would have preferred a bipartisan select committee of lawmakers she said would have more autonomy.
"The Trump Administration must make clear that Director Mueller will have the resources and independence he needs to execute this critical investigation," Pelosi said in a statement.
She referred to Mueller as "a respected public servant of the highest integrity."
Republicans also praised Mueller, Comey's predecessor, who led the FBI for 13 years under former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
GOP lawmakers noted Mueller's reputation for fairness and a lack of partisanship -- a fact that could give many in the party a measure of political cover from voters leery of how the Russia probe had unfolded in the wake of Trump's controversial decision to fire Comey, the man who was leading it.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, one of several top Republicans tasked with walking the line between partisan loyalties and answering questions swirling around the Russia probe, called Mueller a "great selection" with "impeccable credentials."
The Justice Department's investigation is one of three actively pursuing answers about the extent to which Russia interfered in the 2016 election and whether any Trump allies played a role in that effort. Leaders of both the House and Senate intelligence committees are conducting their own probes with increasingly sprawling implications for the Trump administration, which they said will continue despite Mueller's appointment.
Comey has been invited to testify as a private citizen before both panels in the wake of Trump's decision to fire him, though he has yet to respond to those offers and neither panel has issued a formal subpoena to compel his testimony.