The Mueller Investigation: What is a Special Counsel?

The Mueller Investigation: What is a Special Counsel?

Ever since Robert S. Mueller III was pulled in to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, there has been a lot of confusion surrounding his role as special counsel. This, amongst speculation of Mueller’s role challenging President Donald Trump to find out what he knew as the face and ultimate winner of the scandalized election.

So, what is a special counsel? What can they do? And why is Mueller’s investigation so important? Let’s dissect this popular subject and find out the details.

Special Counsel: An Introduction

First, let’s look at the direct definition of what a special counsel, otherwise called an independent counsel or special prosecutor, is.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, a special counsel is defined as the following:

“[An] [o]fficial appointed by the court at the request of the U.S. attorney general to investigate and prosecute criminal violations by high government officials, members of Congress, or directors of a presidential election campaign after an investigation by the attorney general finds evidence that a crime may have been committed.”

The distinguishing feature of a special counsel is their role to ensure an impartial investigation when the Attorney General cannot due to a conflict of interest.

Special counsels were first introduced in 1875, when a group of midwestern whiskey distillers were found evading taxes and using the unpaid tax money to fund the re-election of then president Ulysses S. Grant. Grant, who was cleared of any involvement, appointed John B. Henderson as a special prosecutor to investigate. Since then, the role has evolved and the investigations have varied, but special counsels represent an upholding of the law when government officials are involved.

Mueller’s Role

In this case, Robert Mueller’s job is to investigate the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and whether any members of President Trump’s campaign officials were complicit.

Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein following Trump’s firing of former F.B.I. Director James Comey, who had initially started investigating possibly Russian ties to the election. Rosenstein acted in place of Attorney Jeff Sessions, after Session recused himself from involvement in any investigations related to the 2016 election.  In a press release upon appointing Mueller Special Counsel, Rosenstein asserted that “based upon the unique circumstances, the public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.”

With this appointment, Rosenstein gave Mueller the ability to investigate not only the events surrounding the election, but also “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation,” and cited a Justice Department regulation giving special counsels jurisdiction to investigate any attempts to impede the investigation as well. This was noted by the New York Times, who noted that this allows Mueller to investigate President Trump for firing Comey, if in doing so he obstructed justice.

This isn’t to say Mueller has complete freedom to do as he pleases. He must stick to rules and regulations, while his major decisions will be overseen by Deputy General Rosenstein. Whether this means Trump can be indicted is a hotly debated topic of constitutional law and if Mueller will attempt it has yet to be seen.

 The Importance of the Russia Investigation

There are undeniably many reasons for why Mueller’s investigation is important and notes a historical period in American politics.

Foremost, the investigation is crucial because of the interference of a foreign power in a presidential election, especially a country such a Russia, a nation which the United States has long been at odds with. Next is the implication that a sitting U.S. president’s campaign was involved, or that the president himself could be guilty of colluding or obstructing justice. Scandal isn’t something Trump’s presidency is unfamiliar with, but if he is found to be involved or his actions against Comey are found to have obstructed the investigation, there will be a toss up in Washington.

Mueller has already indicted multiple individuals from Trump’s campaign staff or presidential team in the Russia probe, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort—where the investigation will go from here we can only speculate, but one thing can be said for sure: this investigation will be remembered as a pivotal time for constitutional law and the presidential office.