DOJ: No ethics conflict for special counsel in Russia probe

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Story highlights

  • Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel last week to lead the Russia probe
  • Mueller was appointed FBI director by President George W. Bush in 2001 and served until 2013

Washington (CNN)The Justice Department has determined that former FBI Director Robert Mueller's appointment as special counsel to oversee the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election complies with ethics rules.

Questions about Mueller's appointment were raised last week in light of the fact that his former law firm, WilmerHale, represents President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who both work in the White House, as well as former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Federal ethics regulations prohibit government employees from participating in cases involving their former employer in certain circumstances.
    On Tuesday, the Justice Department declined to say the regulations apply to the "matters to which Special Counsel Mueller was appointed," but nevertheless concluded Mueller's appointment to lead the Russia probe is valid.
    "(W)e can confirm that the department ethics experts have reviewed the matters and determined that Mr. Mueller's participation in the matters assigned to him is appropriate," the Justice Department said in a statement on Tuesday.
    Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller last week to oversee any possible links between the Russian government and Trump campaign associates, as well as any other matters that "arose or may arise directly from the investigation."
    Trump and various members of his administration have denied any allegations of collusion.
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    While the department declined to "confirm or deny that Mr. Mueller's former firm represents an individual or individuals who are within the scope of the Special Counsel appointment," it said "the department's ethics experts have considered the relevant issues and determined that Mr. Mueller's appointment as special counsel is consistent with the rules of professional responsibility."
    Lawyers Richard Painter and Norman Eisen, who advised then-Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on ethics issues, respectively, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week that preventing Mueller's appointment based on his prior law firm's clients wouldn't hold up.
    "Otherwise, a person involved in an investigation could hire one of Washington's largest law firms (WilmerHale has hundreds of attorneys) and thereby prevent the Justice Department, including the special counsel's office, from hiring any of that firm's lawyers to investigate or prosecute him or any of his co-conspirators," they argued. "With so many Trump administration officials potentially tangled up in this investigation and lawyering up all over Washington, such a recusal rule could make it extremely difficult for the special prosecutor to hire a staff."
    UPDATE: This story has been updated to add that Ivanka Trump is also represented by WilmerHale.