This post has been updated.
The bombshell revelation represents a startling admission of fault for the administration — if not the White House directly. This was a Justice Department decision about which the White House reportedly learned shortly before it was announced.
“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,” Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement.
The words "chain of command" loom larger there. At the top of that chain, of course, is Trump, who has earned criticism even from Republicans for his heavy hand in dealing with now-former FBI Director James B. Comey.
And it’s not at all clear what the president will think or say. He and his team have spent the better part of the past nine days continuing to dig themselves a hole that they first broke ground on with the firing of Comey on May 9. And at every turn, the White House’s strategy has been to deny, deny, deny. Just two days ago, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said there was no reason for a special prosecutor.
Update: In a statement, Trump conspicuously didn't weigh in on the need for a special prosecutor:
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. 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.
But the sum total of it was that the president had done irreparable harm to the credibility of most of those directly overseeing the investigation and the FBI. In many ways, the Justice Department was being given no choice.
Rosenstein has been a perhaps-unwitting participant in the drama. The White House’s attempt to initially pass off Comey’s firing as a Justice Department decision — and then Trump later saying he made his decision regardless of DOJ’s recommendations — effectively made it look like he had used Rosenstein and his memo detailing the case against Comey as political cover. Rosenstein, who has assembled a strong, bipartisan track record over his decades on law enforcement, suddenly became embattled and, according to various reports, fought back against the White House trying to pin all of it on his recommendation.
Rosenstein’s boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, had long ago compromised himself in this matter — to the point where he had to recuse himself from the investigation. Sessions had failed to report two meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during his confirmation hearings, despite saying, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign, and I did not have communications with the Russians.” (Sessions wasn’t the first Trump surrogate to deny contact with the Russians, only to later have his contact with Kislyak discovered.) And then there were also major questions about whether, given that recusal, Sessions should even have been involved in Comey’s firing, which he supported in a letter.
And lastly, Trump also compromised his yet-to-be-named pick for FBI director. He did this first by firing Comey, who had been leading the investigation and announced in March that it was looking into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. He then made it worse by admitting he was considering the Russia investigation when he did it. Then came reports that he had sought a loyalty pledge from Comey and also that he had asked Comey to shut down the investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
In the end, Trump’s apparently very heavy-handed approach to his FBI director’s investigations would have hung over any new FBI director — no matter how bipartisan the pick.
With Sessions, Rosenstein and Trump’s hand-chosen FBI director all irrevocably involved in this process now and with questions looming about all three, the White House was always going to be vulnerable to doubts about the probe’s credibility. And now the Justice Department has admitted that.
The question is: Will Trump?