In the blockbuster news we’ve grown accustomed to hearing nightly for the last two weeks, the Department of Justice announced that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had appointed a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, to investigate Russian connections with members of the Trump campaign. Rosenstein is acting under authority granted by the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions in this investigation. Rosenstein apparently gave the White House no heads up on the decision; he stated in his letter, “I determined that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authorities and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter. My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted. I have made no such determination… If the Special Counsel believes it is necessary and appropriate, the special counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters."
Here are seven things you need to know.
1. This Never Would Have Happened If Not For The Comey Firing. Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey not only got rid of the person leading the investigation into Russian election meddling, it elevated Rosenstein to a position of prominence in the Trump administration — Trump requested a memo from Rosenstein recommending Comey’s firing. Now Rosenstein has used that platform and authority to recommend a special counsel.
2. The Special Counsel Has To Update Nobody. Unlike a member of the DOJ, a special counsel has no requirement to tell the Attorney General or anyone else in the Department of Justice about the progress of the investigation. Trump can still fire the special counsel, but doing so would obviously create a serious scandal.
3. Mueller Is Well-Respected On A Bipartisan Basis. Mueller was originally appointed to head the FBI by President George W. Bush in 2001, and then re-appointed for an extra two years by President Obama. He did work for the Department of Justice for a dozen years as a U.S. attorney, and was an assistant to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh under George H.W. Bush. As Hank Berrien reports, “In 2004, as Director of the FBI, Mueller, along with James Comey, who was at the time Deputy Attorney General, offered to resign from office if the White House overruled a DOJ ruling that domestic wiretapping without a court warrant was unconstitutional.”
4. Special Counsels And Independent Counsels Have A Long History Of Exceeding Their Mandate. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, appointed by James Comey when he was deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, pursued his mandate far beyond his original case, eventually ending up with the unfair indictment of Scooter Libby. Kenneth Starr expanded his mandate to include the Paula Jones case and the Lewinsky scandal, leading Democrats to join Republicans in killing the Independent Counsel Law altogether.
5. This Could Take Pressure Off Of Congress. While Mueller’s appointment may relieve some of the pressure from the White House, it won’t take pressure off Congress to continue investigating the Comey firing and Russian election interference, at least from the media and Democrats. With that said, Mueller’s appointment does allow Congress to point at Mueller as the man in charge of the investigation.
6. The Central Targets Of The Investigation Reportedly Include Flynn And Manafort. NBC News is reporting that former Trump national security advisor Mike Flynn and former Trump campaign manager “have emerged as key figures in the FBI’s investigation into Russian campaign interference, which has just been taken over by a special counsel, four law enforcement officials told NBC News.” Trump is currently under fire after reports that he told Comey he would prefer him to let Flynn off the hook, and Manafort has been under serious investigation for months.
7. If Trump Is Clean, This Could Be Good For Him. Special investigations take lots of time. Mueller is reportedly an expert at keeping his mouth shut, so that means lots of radio silence here. That will deprive the media of oxygen, and prevent new scoops from breaking.
The Democrats finally have what they wanted — and if Trump gives them a bipartisan FBI pick, it’s going to be difficult to claim that he’s trying to stymie an investigation. That’s just what he should do if he’s as clean as he says he is. Then, perhaps, we can get back to the business of governing rather than blowing up the news cycle every few minutes.