News and Music Discovery
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Justice Department Names Special Counsel In Russia Investigation


We're joined now by NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson with the latest on the breaking news that the Justice Department has appointed a special prosecutor to handle the Russia inquiry. Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: So FBI Director Robert Mueller - former FBI Director Robert Mueller who preceded James Comey in the role is going to take over this investigation. What can you tell us?

JOHNSON: Yeah. The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, made this call. Remember; Attorney General Jeff Sessions is recused from matters related to Russia, the Hillary Clinton investigation and the political campaigns of 2016. Rosenstein put out a statement through the Justice Department, and he said he determined it's in the public interest to appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this Russia investigation.

He was clear, Ari, that he hasn't found that a crime has been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. We're way too early for that. What Rosenstein found, rather, is that based on the unique circumstances of this investigation, the public interest requires him to make sure it's being led in an independent fashion outside the normal chain of command.

SHAPIRO: Explain what a special counsel is and how an investigation by a special counsel is different from a typical FBI investigation.

JOHNSON: Yeah, sure. So special counsels use FBI agents and Justice Department lawyers in the normal course of their work. The difference is that for some reason, the Department of Justice decides the matter is very politically sensitive, may involve the White House or other figures in the cabinet and that they want an extra degree of insulation and independence. And that's when special counsels have been used in the past.

For instance, during the George W. Bush years, then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey appointed a special counsel to look into the leak of the identity of a CIA operative, Valerie Plame. In that case, Scooter Libby, a top aide to then-Vice President Richard Cheney, was charged and convicted with a crime. But sometimes these councils investigate, and no prosecution happens at all.

SHAPIRO: The man who's going to be leading this inquiry is well-known to both of us. I used to cover the Justice Department when Robert Mueller was FBI director. You covered the Justice Department at the same time before coming to NPR. Remind us who he is and what's known about him.

JOHNSON: Robert Mueller is a career prosecutor. He's served in a variety of roles inside the Justice Department. And Ari, he's been kind of an indispensable man in Washington. He served his entire 10-year term as FBI director, and President Obama searched and searched and searched, couldn't find someone quickly to replace him. So the Senate actually passed legislation allowing Robert Mueller two extra years to serve as FBI director. He served for 12 years in total, and now he's going back into public service all over again. I'm told he's likely to resign his position at the WilmerHale private law firm where he's been working recently.

SHAPIRO: And there's a lot of respect for him from both parties. This is not somebody who could reasonably be accused of partisanship.

JOHNSON: No, he's considered to be apolitical, has worked for both Republicans and Democrats and has maintained the trust of presidents and White Houses no matter the party affiliation. He's known as a guy who calls it like he sees it. He's a former Marine and in fact has gotten some ribbing over the years for his sort of no-nonsense, no-joking kind of style. But in this environment with the Russia investigation looming so large, perhaps you want somebody who is a straight shooter and does not play in the political arena at all.

SHAPIRO: If you're just joining us, NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is with us discussing the breaking news that former FBI Director Robert Mueller will be taking over the investigation of Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. The Justice Department has just named Mueller to be a special counsel.

Carrie, let's take a step back and discuss what this investigation is looking into because as much news as there was even before the election on the topic of Russian meddling just in the last week and even the last 48 hours, there's been a whole lot more.

JOHNSON: Yes. We do not have at this point a specific remit for the special counsel. Often when such a person is appointed, there'll be a sentence or two that describes what exactly they're investigating. The Justice Department has not made that public at this time. But what we do know is that there are a series of investigations out there, a counterintelligence investigation into Russian meddling in the election and then another possibly related investigation into ties between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and people in Russia last year. The former FBI director, James Comey, who was fired last week by President Trump confirmed both of those investigations in congressional testimony. So we know those two things are live and going on now.

SHAPIRO: So there is the question, first of all, of whether Russia meddled in the U.S. election and might have tried to influence the outcome of the election. But then there's also question of whether associates of Donald Trump, including the former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort had inappropriate contacts with Russia. And then, just in the last 24 hours, this separate question emerged of whether President Trump asked the FBI Director Comey - James Comey, who has since been fired - to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn. Could all of these conceivably be part of Mueller's remit?

JOHNSON: Well, that's a very interesting question, Ari, because one of the criticisms of special prosecutors, of special counsels in the past has been that they start looking at one thing, and many, many other areas emerge for investigation. Now, during the Clinton - Bill Clinton years when there was an independent counsel statute on the books, those folks had free reign to investigate for years and years and years and spent tons of taxpayer money.

Now that that statute has expired, special counsels are used by the Justice Department as part of federal regulations. Those people have a little less leeway than an independent counsel might, but if they find credible evidence that they want to look at, it's hard for the Justice Department to say no to them. And even though this investigation is starting with these two points that we know have been confirmed publicly by James Comey, it's hard to say where it might end up at this early stage.

SHAPIRO: Of course there are also congressional investigations unfolding in the House and Senate. Documents have been requested from James Comey. Testimony has been scheduled. Others have already testified - former Attorney General Sally Yates, for example - acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Does this nullify, negative, cut short those investigations, or are these now parallel tracks?

JOHNSON: I think they're parallel tracks. Although, in the past, before the appointment of this special counsel, various people on Capitol Hill - the chairman and chairpeople of these committees - have been careful to have private meetings with the FBI and the Justice Department to make sure that Congress is not stepping on the toes of any possible criminal investigation moving forward. This has been a problem in the past in the Reagan years with Iran-Contra and other investigations. Members of Congress are generally very careful not to mess up any possible criminal cases that could be built.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson on news that the Justice Department has named a special counsel to handle the Russia investigation. That special counsel is former FBI Director Robert Mueller. And we will continue updating you on this story as the evening unfolds. Carrie Johnson, thank you very much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.