ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
There have been many twists and turns in the story of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election. There are multiple investigations, and now there is a significant new development. The Justice Department has tonight appointed a special counsel to oversee its investigation. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller will lead the inquiry. He released a brief statement this evening saying, I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.
NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is covering this story and joins us again. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Robert Mueller is a familiar name in Washington. You covered him when he was the FBI director. Tell us a little more about him.
JOHNSON: Yeah. In some ways, Washington's indispensable man, a former prosecutor, former U.S. attorney in San Francisco, the FBI director for 12 years, so hard to replace, Ari, that President Obama and the Senate had to take special measures to give him an extra two years on his term. For the last few years, he's been working as a partner at the WilmerHale law firm in Washington. He has resigned that job to prevent any conflicts of interest, and he's bringing two lawyers from his firm with him...
SHAPIRO: You have some...
JOHNSON: ...To help.
SHAPIRO: ...Interesting nuggets about who those two lawyers are who are going to be working on this investigation.
JOHNSON: Yeah. He's bringing along Aaron Zebley, who worked closely with Mueller as - at the FBI and a guy named James Quarles, who had been at the WilmerHale law firm for a long time. Earlier in his career, Ari, he was a Watergate prosecutor, of all things.
SHAPIRO: Now, remind us what the difference is between a special counsel and the existing investigation that the FBI was already conducting since last summer.
JOHNSON: Sure. If he so chooses, Robert Mueller can continue with the investigation with the same team of FBI agents who have been investigating for some time. The former FBI director, James Comey, testified to Congress that the bureau was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and any possible contacts between Donald Trump's campaign and people in Russia. We expect that will be Robert Mueller's mandate as well. He will be working under the thumb of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. That's because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the matter. But Rosenstein can only fire this special counsel with notice to Congress and good cause.
SHAPIRO: Do we know whether there is a wall around what Mueller is authorized to look into because this story keeps evolving as recently as last night with reports that before the president fired FBI Director James Comey, the president asked Comey to drop the investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn?
JOHNSON: Here's what we know. Rod Rosenstein's legal order that he signed today authorizes Robert Mueller as special counsel to look into any links or coordination between the Russian government and people associated with Donald Trump's campaign and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation. Ari, some people are interpreting that second part to include possible obstruction or interference by Donald Trump. We're not quite a hundred percent clear on that, but at this stage, Robert Mueller, given his background and integrity - if he wants to dig into something, it's going to be very hard for this Justice Department to tell him no.
SHAPIRO: You talk about his background and integrity. Tonight we've heard positive statements praising Mueller coming from everyone from Attorney General John Ashcroft, a Republican who served under George W. Bush, to the ACLU, which sued Mueller when he was FBI director, all of them saying this is an independent, upstanding guy.
JOHNSON: (Laughter) Yeah. There's been nary a word of criticism about Robert Mueller. And when you have Democrats, Republicans and interest groups united, you know it's a very rare day in Washington in 2017.
SHAPIRO: (Laughter) NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thank you.
JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.