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Robert Mueller, the former director of the FBI, has been appointed special counsel to lead the Russia investigation.
His remit is to look at possible Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and "related matters" - a deliberately vague term. He will be able to call the president to testify and subpoena documents.
Mr Mueller, 72, who lead the FBI until James Comey took over in 2013, is widely-respected.
He was appointed by George W. Bush in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, and steered the agency through some exceptionally difficult times.
His appointment is intended to appease Democrats, and some Republicans, who have been calling in ever-louder voices for a special prosecutor to be appointed.
The calls have taken on a greater urgency since it was revealed on Monday night that Mr Trump told Russia classified information, and on Tuesday night that he had asked Mr Comey to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn's ties to Russia.
"I welcome and applaud the decision," said Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat sitting on the judiciary committee.
The decision was made by the justice department.
Donald McGahn, the White House counsel, was given less than an hour's notice of the appointment, it was reported. The White House is yet to issue a statement.
His appointment was announced by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who has been in charge of the Russia investigation since Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, recused himself.
“I determined that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authorities and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter,” said Mr Rosenstein in a statement issued on Wednesday night.
“My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination.”
The New York Times reported that while a special counsel would remain ultimately answerable to Mr Rosenstein — and by extension, the president — he would have greater autonomy to run an investigation than a United States attorney would.
Mr Mueller will be able to choose to what extent to consult with or inform the justice department about his investigation as it goes forward.