The US Justice Department has appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special prosecutor to oversee an investigation into Russia’s influence on last year’s US presidential election.
The appointment came amid a growing outcry for someone outside the Justice Department to handle the politically-charged investigation. Calls for a special counsel have increased since President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey last week.
It was announced by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who said it was “in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter”.
“My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted,” Mr Rosenstein said. “I have made no such determination.
“What I have determined is that based upon the unique circumstances 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.”
Mr Mueller was appointed FBI director in 2001 and led the FBI through the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks. He retired in 2013. He has resigned from his job at a private law firm – linked on social media to work done for Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner – to take the job of special counsel.
The White House released a statement from President Trump immediately after the appointment was announced in which he once again denied collusion between his campaign and Russia.
“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,” President Trump said.
“I look forward to this matter concluding quickly. In the meantime, I will never stop fighting for the people and the issues that matter most to the future of our country.”
Despite this, lawmakers from both side of US politics have raised the prospect of President Trump’s impeachment over claims he attempted to shut down an FBI investigation into disgraced security advisor Michael Flynn.
The mounting pressure on President Trump comes as one of his own party’s most senior figures compared the growing scandal over the Trump administration’s possible links to Russia to the Watergate scandal that cost Richard Nixon the presidency in 1974.
Earlier, in his first public appearance since news of the Comey memo broke, President Trump told a gathering of US Coast Guard Academy graduates that while things aren’t always fair, “you have to put your head down and fight, fight, fight”.
“Look at the way I have been treated lately, especially by the media,” he said. “No politician in history, and I say this with great surety, has been treated worse or more unfairly.
Republican lawmaker Justin Amash on Thursday morning (AEST) said if the reports about Mr Trump’s pressure on then-FBI director James Comey are true, it would merit impeachment.
According to a memo written by Mr Comey after a February meeting at the White House, the President told the FBI boss: “I hope you can let this go.”
Mr Trump’s request has raised allegations that the President tried to influence the FBI and Justice Department investigation into links between Trump associates and Russia.
The White House has denied the memo’s version of events.
President Trump sensationally fired Mr Comey as FBI director last Wednesday.
Mr Comey has been invited by the Senate Intelligence Committee to testify in both open and closed-door hearings over reports the President asked him to drop the investigation into Mr Flynn.
“I don’t think I know any member that I’ve talked to, publicly or privately, Democrat or Republican, that doesn’t think that Jim Comey deserves a chance to tell his side of the story,” the committee’s top Democrat, Senator Mark Warner told reporters.
Asked on CNN after the news broke whether President Trump could face impeachment, independent Senator Angus King said: “Reluctantly … I have to say ‘yes’ simply because obstruction of justice is such a serious offence.”
Republican congressman Al Green was less moderate, telling Congress: “This is where I stand. I will not be moved. The President must be impeached.”
“The American people do not participate in democracy just on election day,” he said.
Senator John McCain, one of the Republican party’s most senior politicians, invoked Watergate in describing the controversy surrounding alleged ties between President Trump’s 2016 election campaign and Russia.
“I think it’s reaching the point where it’s of Watergate size and scale, and a couple of other scandals you and I have seen,” Senator McCain said Wednesday, adding: “Every couple of days, there’s a new aspect of this really unhappy situation.”
Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, on Wednesday demanded the FBI turn over all “memoranda, notes, summaries, and recordings” of discussions between Mr Trump and Mr Comey.
Mr Chaffetz added he was prepared to subpoena the FBI to secure the documents.
But as investigators called for more information from the White House, lawmakers from both parties rejected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer to provide a record of the White House meeting in which Mr Trump allegedly shared classified information with Russian officials
Democrat Congressman Adam Schiff, who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Mr Putin’s endorsement was the last thing President Trump needs.
“Probably the last person the President needs to vouch for him right now is Vladimir Putin,” Mr Schiff told CBS News.
“Its credibility would be less than zero.”
The Watergate scandal followed the 1972 break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, DC.
The Nixon administration attempted to cover up its involvement in the break-in in the face of a Senate investigation until Nixon resigned the presidency on August 9, 1974 while facing almost certain impeachment.