WASHINGTON — Special Counsel Robert Mueller III’s team defended the validity of his appointment in court Thursday amid uncertainty about the future of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Mueller’s attorneys were responding to a challenge brought by an associate of Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to President Trump, that questions the constitutionality of Mueller’s role — and that could eventually reach the Supreme Court.
The hearing, coming a day after Trump ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions, opened with a judge at the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit telling lawyers to make their case as if it were being argued Wednesday morning, before the Justice Department shakeup.
Andrew Miller, a former assistant to Stone, appealed after losing his bid to block a grand jury subpoena from Mueller. Miller was held in contempt, but that ruling is on hold pending the outcome of his appeals case.
The special counsel’s team has sought to interview a number of Stone associates or have them appear before the grand jury as part of the 18-month-old probe.
Government attorney Michael Dreeben provided insight Thursday into how Mueller’s team has been operating under the supervision of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
There is day-to-day independence, but the team has to report major developments, he said. Rosenstein can ask for explanations of prosecutorial decisions, and the team needs approval to grant immunity to witnesses, for instance, or to subpoena a member of the media.
‘‘He’s aware of what we’re doing,’’ Dreeben said in court. ‘‘It is not the case that the special counsel’s office is off wandering in a free-floating environment.’’
Miller’s attorney disagreed. He said Mueller was named unlawfully, in violation of the appointments clause of the Constitution, arguing he has broad prosecutorial powers and little oversight.
Mueller ‘‘lacks significant direction and supervision’’ and is akin to a US attorney-at-large, Miller attorney Paul Kamenar argued.
Miller’s appeal is backed by the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative nonprofit group, and was shaped in part by arguments advanced by law professor Steven Calabresi, cofounder of the Federalist Society.
Two district court judges in Washington — one nominated by a Democrat, the other by Trump — have upheld the constitutionality of Mueller’s appointment in recent rulings. The hearing Thursday, however, was the first time an appeals court panel — made up of Judges Karen LeCraft Henderson, Judith Rogers, and Sri Srinivasan — reviewed the special counsel’s authority.
Rosenstein appointed Mueller in May 2017, after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Rosenstein’s involvement came because Sessions had recused himself from matters involving the campaign.
The president this week claimed he has the power to immediately cut short the special counsel’s investigation but said he wants to ‘‘let it go on.’’
‘‘I could fire everybody right now,’’ Trump said at a post-election news conference Wednesday, shortly before Sessions resigned at the president’s request and was replaced on an acting basis with Matthew Whitaker. Whitaker will assume authority over the special counsel probe, a Justice Department official said, and does not intend to recuse himself from overseeing the investigation, according to people close to him.
A Russian firm, Concord Management and Consulting, made an argument similar to Miller’s on Thursday in an effort to have an indictment of the company issued by the special counsel dismissed.
Concord was charged along with 13 Russian nationals and two other companies, accused of orchestrating a social media influence campaign to affect the 2016 election. Concord has pleaded not guilty.
The three-judge panel must answer the specific question of whether Mueller is a ‘‘principal officer,’’ requiring appointment by the president and Senate confirmation, or an ‘‘inferior’’ one, who can be appointed by the head of a department.
Two appeals judges — Srinivasan and Rogers — seemed skeptical of the argument from Concord’s attorney that Mueller’s appointment required a specific statute passed by Congress.
‘‘DOJ hires private attorneys all the time,’’ Rogers said.