The US Department of Justice has named Robert Mueller, a former FBI head, as a special counsel to oversee the bureau’s probe into Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election.
The investigation was thrown into question last week after president Donald Trump abruptly fired James Comey, the FBI director. Mueller’s appointment was “not a finding that crimes have been committed,” acting attorney general Rod Rosenstein said in a statement, but the “unique circumstances” of the case (meaning, presumably, the suspicion that Trump might have meant to block the investigation by firing Comey) “requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.”
Mueller was named director of the FBI on Sept. 4, 2001, a week before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC that killed nearly 3,000 people. A former Marine Corps officer and Vietnam veteran, he worked in states attorney-generals’ offices and the Department of Justice before being appointed to lead the FBI. He extended his 10-year term at the request of former president Barack Obama, making him the longest-serving director since J. Edgar Hoover.
Before he stepped down in 2013, Mueller often spoke about the threats that cyber crime and state-sponsored hackers posed to the US’s national security.
The Justice Department’s order authorizes Mueller to investigate any “links and/or coordination” between the Russian government and the Trump campaign and any related matters that arise, and to prosecute any federal crimes that he uncovers.
Since he left the FBI, Mueller has been working in a private law firm (he will step down from that job). So his very first task will be getting up to speed on an investigation that’s been going on since last July and generated thousands of pages of documents. An estimated 15 to 20 FBI agents are working on it full-time. Two attorneys also retired from the private firm after Mueller’s new appointment was announced: Aaron Zebley, who worked with him at the FBI, and James Quarles, who was an assistant special prosecutor on the Watergate Special Prosecution Force. A spokesman for the firm said “We expect they will join Mr. Mueller.” (BuzzFeed first reported the Zebley and Quarles move).
No. A special prosecutor has one hefty downside, compared to congressional committees or an independent commission: he is there to uncover crimes rather than find out everything that happened. This means Mueller and his team can uncover any number of legal, but deeply serious, wrongdoings and be obliged to keep quiet about them. “If it’s not a prosecutable crime, it might as well never have happened, from a prosecutor’s point of view,” as former George W. Bush speechwriter and ardent Trump critic David Frum recently outlined. Frum called for an independent congressional commission or committee of experts to conduct a full probe that would seek truth rather than crimes.
Archibald Cox was appointed to investigate the Watergate scandal in 1974, and was succeeded later the same year by Leon Jaworski after president Richard Nixon fired him.
In 1994, Kenneth Starr was appointed to conduct the investigation into the Whitewater controversy, which involved Bill and Hillary Clinton’s business dealings. The Clintons were acquitted. Later Starr also delivered a report on perjury and obstruction of justice by Bill Clinton over his affair with a White House staffer, Monica Lewinsky.
In 2004, James Comey—then the acting attorney-general—appointed Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate the Bush administration’s exposure of Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent. That eventually resulted in the conviction of Scooter Libby, vice-president Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, for lying during the investigation.
Past investigations have taken anywhere from a little over a year (Watergate) to four years (Whitewater and Lewinsky). Mueller’s probe could be more complex than the Watergate scandal, since it involves a foreign power. The special prosecutor is under no obligation to close the investigation within a certain timeframe.
Largely semantic. The title “special prosecutor” was changed to “independent counsel” in 1983 to sound “less prejudicial” as part of the renewal of a 1978 law, formalizing the procedures around the position. After that law expired in 1999, the title became “special counsel.”
While it’s equivalent to a special prosecutor, though, a special counsel has less independence (pdf, p.4) from the Department of Justice (DOJ). However, his powers can be broadened if the attorney general so decides, as Comey did with Fitzgerald in 2004.
Hypothetically, he’ll have the full powers of any federal prosecutor. Under the statute that allows the attorney general—or in this case, since Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the investigation, his deputy—to appoint a special counsel, the powers delegated are quite broad. They include the power to subpoena witnesses and make criminal charges. The special counsel can also request staff from the DOJ or hire them, and all personnel are required to “cooperate to the fullest extent possible.”
Comey, in a letter outlining Fitzgerald’s mandate for the Plame investigation, expanded the special counsel’s statutory powers by delegating to him the full authority of the attorney general, including the ability to prosecute crimes discovered during his investigation such as perjury and obstruction of justice. It’s not clear yet if Rosenstein will give these broader powers to Mueller.
One possible outcome of the investigation is impeachment—that Congress decides to try the president and potentially remove him from office. But that will depend on whether Mueller’s investigation provides clear enough evidence of presidential wrongdoing to convince Republicans in Congress to act—or if it drags on long enough for Democrats to take control of Congress in next year’s mid-term elections, as they may.
In Bill Clinton’s case, a false statement made under oath—his denial that he had sexual relations with Lewinsky—moved the House of Representatives to impeach him on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice before the Senate acquitted him. Mueller’s mandate will be to investigate “Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and related matters.” That means he will likely start with Trump advisors who had contact with the Russian government, and move up the chain from there.
The White House was given only about 30 minutes warning before the announcement was made. An hour after it came out, the president issued a statement:
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.