A new player entered the Trump-Russia saga on Wednesday, when former FBI director Robert Mueller III was appointed as special counsel overseeing the federal probe into the Trump campaign's alleged involvement with Russia. The deputy attorney general made the call to bring in Mueller to investigate, which many congressional Democrats and Republicans alike have called for. But what is special counsel, any way? And what does Mueller's new role mean for the whole Trump-Russia scandal?
Trump's entire presidency thus far has been dominated by questions about his campaign's ties to Russia. As expected, President Trump was not pleased with the appointment, taking to Twitter Thursday morning to claim, "This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" He also added, "With all of the illegal acts that took place in the Clinton campaign & Obama Administration, there was never a special counsel appointed!"
Besides Trump's inevitable Twitter rant, there's a lot to know about this special counsel. Let's dive in.
What does "special counsel" mean?
Essentially, special counsel is someone brought in from outside the Justice Department to lead an investigation. According to federal regulations, the attorney general can appoint special counsel when they think a criminal investigation is necessary but a probe by the Justice Department would "present a conflict of interest for the Department or other extraordinary circumstances" and "it would be in the public interest to appoint an outside Special Counsel to assume responsibility for the matter."
Because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation due to talks he had with Russian officials during the 2016 election, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made the call.
Who is Mueller?
The attorney brought in as special counsel is a former FBI director who served under President George W. Bush and President Obama (who asked him to stay at the FBI two years past the 10-year limit). He spent decades working for the government and helped change how the FBI responded to terrorism threats after September 11.
He currently works for the law firm WilmerHale, where attorneys for Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, work. He's expected to resign in order to head the Russia investigation.
When has special counsel been used in the past?
Special counsel or special prosecutors (the terms are interchangeable) have been brought in multiple times throughout history, most notably during the Watergate scandal. The U.S. attorney general appointed Archibald Cox as a special prosecutor, but President Nixon fired Cox after he fought to make the president turn over tapes. Then, a second special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, was hired, but Nixon resigned after he was forced to give up the White House tapes.
What will Mueller do exactly?
Rosenstein's letter said Mueller will look into "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump," as well as "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation."
The letter also states that if he believes it's appropriate, Mueller "is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters."
Who will he answer to?
Special counsel technically still falls under the Justice Department's umbrella, so Mueller will report to Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein (who reports to the president). Rosenstein has the power to fire Mueller at any time, and Trump could potentially do so indirectly by asking Rosenstein to fire him.
Because of this, some members of Congress, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, are still concerned about the investigation.
Pelosi said in a written statement: "Director Mueller will still be in the chain of command under the Trump-appointed leadership of the Justice Department. He cannot take the place of a truly independent, outside commission that is completely free from the Trump Administration’s meddling. A special prosecutor does not negate the need for vigorous Congressional investigations either."