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Former FBI Director To Lead Probe Of Russian Meddling


Former FBI Director Robert Mueller will be heading up the Justice Department's investigation into Russian meddling in last year's U.S. presidential election. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein named Mueller as special counsel yesterday. For more on this, we're joined in the studio by NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro. Hi, Domenico.


MARTIN: So Mueller's got a pretty good reputation in Washington D.C. What are lawmakers saying about this appointment?

MONTANARO: You know, it's a pretty bipartisan choice. A lot of lawmakers praising the decision by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to make this appointment. If they had to pick a special counsel, this is somebody with a sterling reputation who both sides pretty much like.

There are some Republicans who are a little hesitant because they think that it could overshadow their investigation and special counsels because of the latitude they have could go in a lot of different directions.


Domenico, Rachel, I think a lot of people in Washington are familiar with with Robert Mueller, but let's familiarize ourselves a little bit. I mean, he ran the FBI for 12 years - the longest serving FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover actually. And our colleague Martin Kaste has been looking back on his career. And it turns out Mueller has a lot of experience with really politically sensitive investigations.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Robert Mueller first stepped on the national stage as the man who took over the FBI one week before 9/11.


ROBERT MUELLER: These attacks highlight the need for a different FBI, a more focused FBI and a more technologically adept FBI.

KASTE: This is Mueller speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee in May of 2002. The attacks had transformed the Bureau, he said. Half the agents had been reassigned away from more conventional crimes to counterterrorism.


MUELLER: Given the gravity of the current terrorist threat to the United States, the FBI must make the hard decisions to focus its available energies and resources on preventing additional terrorist attacks and protecting our nation's security.

KASTE: The Bureau was wading back into the murky waters of domestic intelligence and surveillance - the kind of activity that so tarnished its reputation in the '60s and '70s. But at least with Mueller, the FBI could say it was being run by a straight arrow.


JOHN ASHCROFT: So I called him Square Jaw McGraw.

KASTE: That's former Attorney General John Ashcroft speaking last night to All Things Considered.


ASHCROFT: Circumstances reveal character. They don't determine character. And so his character is in place long before the circumstances get complex or the situation gets sticky or difficult. Bob's going to be the same.

KASTE: Ashcroft himself was at the center of the now famous hospital bed incident in March of 2004. He was recovering from an illness when White House counsel Alberto Gonzales showed up in his hospital room to try to get him to reauthorize a secret surveillance program. But Mueller and James Comey, who was acting attorney general at that moment, thought that one aspect of the program was illegal and should not be reauthorized. The two of them rushed to the hospital to confront Gonzales. Three years later, Mueller confirmed that he'd made common cause with Comey.


MUELLER: In conversations with Mr. Comey, I had understand the Department of Justice had some concerns about the legality of an NSA program.

KASTE: That's Mueller testifying on Capitol Hill in 2007. And get this - he also revealed to the committee that he'd taken notes at the time - detailed notes after the hospital room incident.


ARTUR DAVIS: Tell me why you decided to make notes of your conversation with Mr. Ashcroft.

MUELLER: It was out of the ordinary.

DAVIS: What was out of the ordinary, Mr. Mueller?

MUELLER: Being asked to go to the hospital and be present at that time.

KASTE: Again, that was Robert Mueller in 2007. Now 10 years later, James Comey reportedly had similar reasons for the notes that he took after private meetings with President Trump. Clearly, Comey and Mueller both share an instinct for memorialising meetings and for caution.

RANDALL SAMBORN: There's no doubt that Bob Mueller and Jim Comey had a connection in their relationship together because for a number of years when Mueller was FBI Director, Jim Comey was the deputy attorney general.

KASTE: Randall Samborn is a former assistant U.S. attorney. A decade ago, he was spokesman for the special counsel investigation of Scooter Libby. He's convinced that Mueller can be independent despite that shared history with Comey.

SAMBORM: What effect that may have on these matters today, I would only think that there's one thing that will drive Bob Mueller and that would be to do the right thing.

KASTE: After leaving the FBI, Mueller joined the law firm WilmerHale working on major cases, such as the VW diesel emissions settlement. But now he's quitting that job. And he's taking two of his colleagues with him to work on the Russia investigation. One of them - a former assistant special prosecutor on Watergate. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

MARTIN: So we just heard there - Domenico Montanaro is our lead political editor. He's still with us. We just heard there, Domenico, Mueller has a has a history of independence. Although, there will be some critics who will point to his relationship with Jim Comey.

MONTANARO: Well, it's fascinating that part of it. I mean, if you think about the fact that Donald Trump fired Jim Comey, they - you know, Rosenstein now appointed somebody who was his boss, who, in many respects, was a bigger figure than Jim Comey was.

You know, look, Mueller's got a lot of work ahead of him. You know, this investigation has been going on since last July. There are some 15 to 20 FBI agents who've been working on this full-time. Thousands of pages of documents have been generated. So, you know, imagine you stepping into that role and having to get caught up. It's going to take a little while, which tells us that this investigation is going to take a little while.

GREENE: Well, Domenico, how does this investigation fit into the larger picture? I mean, you've got both the House and the Senate. They have their own investigations. Does this one now carry a lot more weight?

MONTANARO: Well, it carries more weight in the sense that, you know, look, Mueller can bring prosecutions forward. He can bring criminal charges against somebody. If you can put somebody in jail, that carries some weight (laughter).

But the investigations that are going on on Capitol Hill - the House Intelligence and Senate Intelligence Committee - will continue. And again, they have the power to bring anybody they want in front of them to testify on the record under oath in public. And that's a major, major thing that is going to drive a lot of the news coverage and could intertwine in certain ways with the FBI's investigation.

MARTIN: So just briefly, who wins and who loses if this thing does drag on for months and months and months?

MONTANARO: Well, it all depends on what comes out of it. I mean, who wins, who loses really depends on who did what and when and why.

MARTIN: But does the benefit for having this investigation now kind of go underground?

MONTANARO: Well, I don't know that it will go underground. I mean, this is something where - that it's gotten a lot of high-profile attention. You have a high-profile person in charge. There's no evidence that necessarily some of those people who've been in the Justice Department for a long time or in the intelligence community are suddenly going to stop. What it will do is show President Trump that he's got to understand there's a bright line between himself and this investigation.

MARTIN: NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: Thank you.

GREENE: Yeah. Thanks, Domenico. And later this afternoon on All Things Considered, we're going to hear how a series of high-profile sexual harassment scandals in state legislatures has state lawmakers wondering how to best police themselves

(SOUNDBITE OF TOE SONG, "TREMOLO AND DELAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 19, 2017 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Robert Mueller was James Comey's boss back when Mueller served as FBI director and Comey served as deputy attorney general. The attorney general heads the Department of Justice. The FBI director does not oversee the Department of Justice, the attorney general or the deputy attorney general.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.