Ex-Justice Department officials call for independent counsel in Russia probe

A bipartisan group of 179 former federal prosecutors is calling on the Justice Department to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, following President Trump's abrupt firing this week of James Comey as FBI director.

In a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the former prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York called Comey a "highly professional and ethical person." They said his firing has "the appearance — if not the reality — of interfering" with the FBI's ongoing probe into whether Trump's campaign associates colluded with Russians to sway election results.

"Even if this investigation continues unabated, there is a substantial risk that the American people will not have confidence in its results, no matter who is appointed to succeed him, given that the director of the FBI serves at the pleasure of the president," the group wrote.

The former prosecutors who signed the letter include Benito Romano, the district's interim U.S. Attorney during President George H.W. Bush's administration; Robert Cleary, who served as U.S. Attorney in New Jersey after working in the New York office; and Richard Ben-Veniste, who was a special prosecutor during the Watergate scandal and later served as a member of the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Comey himself spent nearly two years as the U.S. Attorney in the New York-based district before his promotion to deputy attorney general during President George W. Bush's administration. President Obama appointed Comey to a 10-year term as FBI director in 2013.

Earlier this week, Democratic Attorneys General from 19 states and the District of Columbia also called on Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel.

The power to appoint an independent counsel falls to Rosenstein because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the Russian investigation. USA TODAY reported Friday that Rosenstein has indicated he's not yet inclined to appoint a special prosecutor. He is slated to brief senators on the Comey firing next week, according to a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Trump has denied any collusion between his camp and Russian interests ahead of last November's election and has denounced the investigation as a "witch hunt."

© 2017 USATODAY.COM


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