While it may feel like an eternity, it’s been just one year since a special counsel was appointed to investigate Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election. Since then, and despite the president’s claims of a witch hunt, special counsel and former FBI director Robert Mueller has issued a string of indictments and secured nearly half a dozen guilty pleas.
Here, the five things you need to know about the special counsel’s investigation:
Mueller’s been particularly productive.
In the time it takes most investigators to set up an office, the Mueller inquiry has already indicted or netted guilty pleas from 19 people and three companies (at least publicly). Thirteen of those charged include Russian nationals affiliated with the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm blamed for spreading misinformation throughout and even after the 2016 campaign.
Five individuals have already entered guilty pleas and are reportedly cooperating with prosecutors. Among them: former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who in December pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort has pleaded not guilty to tax fraud and money laundering charges. He’s set to go on trial this summer.
The special counsel isn’t just looking for “collusion.”
The president and his team have tried to frame the special counsel investigation as looking solely into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian attempts to subvert the election. In fact, the special counsel’s mandate is much broader. Investigators are probing any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign, as well as any matter that may arise during the investigation.
And there’s more. The special counsel is authorized to look into “crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel's investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses.” Mueller and his team are almost certainly zeroing in on the firing of FBI director James Comey (which prompted the Mueller appointment in the first place) as a potential attempt to sideline the investigation.
Trump’s advisers say the investigation has gone on long enough. In fact, this one’s been relatively speedy.
Trump lawyer and former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani has said he’ll urge Mueller to wrap up his investigation. In fact, the investigation is running more quickly than previous special inquiries. Most independent investigators post-Watergate brought no charges. And those who did usually didn’t bring initial indictments until at least a year after their appointments. In contrast, Mueller filed his first charges after five months.
During the Iran-Contra investigation, Lawrence Walsh, technically an independent counsel appointed under a now-expired law, spent more than five years gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses (though most of those convicted were pardoned or had their convictions overturned). And Kenneth Starr spent more than four years in the investigation that led to the impeachment and ultimate acquittal of President Bill Clinton.
In March, Trump Tweeted that Mueller had hired “13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans.”
Justice Department lawyers, like all Americans, are entitled to their political views. Regardless, Trump’s claim that the prosecution is stacked with Clinton flunkies is a misdirection. Mueller himself is a registered Republican, as is Rod Rosenstein, who appointed him. Of the 17 lawyers Mueller has hired, 13 are indeed registered Democrats, while four claim no political affiliation. The Washington Post reports nine of the lawyers made donations to Democrats, the majority coming from “one person, who also contributed to Republicans.”
Accusing Mueller of waging a “witch hunt” isn’t enough to fire him.
Though the president may dislike the focus on Russia’s role in the presidential election, a special counsel can only be fired for “misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of [Justice] Departmental policies.”
Since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself, firing Mueller would fall to acting attorney general Rod Rosenstein. If he were to let go of Mueller and his team, he’d have to explain himself to the chairman and ranking member of the judiciary committees in both the House and Senate. And firing Mueller doesn’t necessarily end the investigation. The FBI would likely continue the inquiry, just under different bosses.