The investigation into the Trump team’s Russian connections has a new boss: A former FBI director whose job will include getting to the bottom of explosive allegations by his successor, James Comey. Here’s what you need to know about Robert Mueller’s mandate, his background and what could happen to Trump when this is all over
Mueller is supposed to carry on the investigation that former FBI director James Comey told Congress about before he was fired by President Donald Trump. That includes any links between Trump campaign associates and Russia, as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation,” according to the letter appointing him.
Under Justice Department regulations, a special counsel has all the authority of a U.S. attorney, including the ability to initiate investigations, subpoena records and bring criminal charges. One difference, however: Special counsels get to choose whether they inform the Justice Department what they’re up to. Before taking “significant” actions, however, the special counsel must notify the attorney general.
Could a special counsel investigate things beyond simply the Russia connection?
Mueller has a broad mandate to determine the course of an investigation, but not an unlimited one. If he decides that something outside the scope of the letter appointing him needs investigating, he would have to ask for permission to expand his probe.
What’s the difference between a special counsel and a special prosecutor or an independent counsel?
Independent counsels or special prosecutors don’t exist anymore. These are titles that were established by law following Watergate, and they expired in 1999. The Justice Department created regulations to keep the concept alive in the form of the special counsel. Patrick Fitzgerald, the former U.S. attorney appointed to investigate the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame, was one.
Who will work for the special counsel, and what sort of budget will Mueller have?
The Justice Department is supposed to supply staff for a special counsel – but Mueller can request specific people, or request the hiring of staff from outside the Justice Department. While working for Mueller, the staff will report to no one else. Mueller will have to propose a budget to the Justice Department within the next 60 days – and update it annually, for as long as the investigation runs. There is no expiration date for Mueller’s authority.
No, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, could. Special counsels can be fired only by the “personal action” of the attorney general. Since Sessions has recused himself from the Trump Russia investigation, Rosenstein – who signed the letter appointing Mueller as “acting attorney general” – is the only person with the authority to curtail Mueller’s work. Such a firing would require a finding of incapacity, misconduct or “good cause.” Whatever the reason, Rosenstein would have to inform Mueller in writing.
Not necessarily. When a special counsel closes shop, he or she must give the attorney general a confidential report explaining the decision to bring charges or drop the matter. The attorney general would have to notify Congress of the conclusion, but can decide whether to make the special counsel’s report public.
Traditional Russian matryoshka dolls depict Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at a street souvenir shop in St. Petersburg on Jan. 20, 2017.
Why is this investigation happening? The FBI and Justice Department are investigating possible co-ordination between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials during and after the 2016 election. The FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies allege that a 2016 hacking of Democratic National Committee servers – which brought confidential e-mails into the hands of whistleblower site Wikileaks – was carried out on behalf of the Russian government to help the Trump campaign. In addition to the FBI and Justice Department, several congressional committees are looking into the matter to find out what Trump and his people knew about the Russian interference and when they knew it.
Who’s James Comey? Mueller’s predecessor as FBI director, James Comey, used to be in charge of the Trump-Russia investigation until Trump fired him on May 9. The White House and the deputy attorney-general have given contradictory accounts of why he was fired. By itself, the sudden move by Trump to fire the man leading an investigation of his campaign team would be dramatic enough, but this week there was more: The New York Times revealed the contents of a memo Comey wrote to himself in February, in which he alleged Trump asked him to end the FBI’s investigation of Michael Flynn, who had just been removed as Trump’s national security adviser after lying about his Russia contacts.
What does this have to do with Mueller? The Comey memo had intensified calls for a special prosecutor to get to the bottom of it all, and those calls were answered – and the stakes raised – when Mueller was named to lead that investigation. If the memo’s allegations are true, it may point to obstruction of justice – Watergate-level wrongdoing by a president. Or it may be judged to fall short of criminal obstruction. Sorting out which is which is going to be a central part of Mueller’s work.
Robert Mueller is sworn in at the start of his testimony during his confirmation hearing as FBI director before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on July 30, 2001.
Robert Mueller took office as FBI director in 2001 expecting to dig into drug cases, white-collar misdeeds and violent crime. A week later was Sept. 11.
Overnight, his mission changed and Mueller spent the next 12 years wrestling the agency into a battle-hardened terrorism-fighting force.
Now, Mueller once again finds himself catapulted into the midst of historic events.
Republicans and Democrats alike praised Mueller, 72, as someone widely respected for his integrity and independence.
As FBI chief, Mueller stood alongside James Comey, then deputy attorney-general, during a dramatic 2004 hospital standoff over federal wiretapping rules. The two men planted themselves at the bedside of the ailing Attorney General John Ashcroft to block Bush administration officials from making an end run to get Ashcroft’s permission to reauthorize a secret no-warrant wiretapping program.
Mueller’s effort to shift the FBI’s top priority from solving domestic crimes to preventing terrorism was a daunting challenge: Even preventing 99 out of 100 terrorist plots wasn’t good enough for a traumatized nation. In response, the FBI shifted 2,000 of the 5,000 agents in its criminal programs into national security.
During Mueller’s tenure, terrorists were thwarted in their efforts to bring down a transatlantic flight in 2001, a Detroit-bound jetliner on Christmas in 2009 and U.S.-bound cargo planes carrying printer cartridge bombs in 2010.
Two terrorist incidents occurred toward the end of Mueller’s watch – the Boston Marathon bombing and the Fort Hood shootings. Both weighed heavily on him, he acknowledged in an interview two weeks before his departure in 2013. “You sit down with victims’ families, you see the pain they go through and you always wonder whether there isn’t something more” that could have been done, he said.
When he became director, Mueller had “expected to focus on areas familiar to me as a prosecutor – drug cases, white-collar criminal cases and violent crime,” he said in 2012. Instead, “we had to focus on long-term, strategic change. We had to enhance our intelligence capabilities and upgrade our technology. We had to build upon strong partnerships and forge new friendships, both here at home and abroad.”
At the time, though, there were problems and Mueller said as much. In a speech near the end of his tenure, he recalled “those days when we were under attack by the media and being clobbered by Congress; when the attorney general was not at all happy with me.”
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Among the issues: the Justice Department’s inspector general found that the FBI circumvented the law to obtain thousands of phone call records for terrorism investigations. Mueller decided that the FBI wouldn’t take part in abusive interrogation techniques of terrorist suspects, but the policy wasn’t effectively communicated down the line for nearly two years. In an effort to move the FBI into a paperless environment, the bureau spent over $600-million on computer systems that were way behind schedule and in one case had to be scrapped as obsolete.
For the nation’s premier law enforcement agency, it was a rocky trip. But there were successes as well and an extraordinary vote of confidence: Congress, at the Obama administration’s request, approved a two-year extension for Mueller to remain at his post until 2013, when he was replaced by Comey, the director fired last week by President Donald Trump.
Mueller was born in New York City and grew up outside of Philadelphia. As a Marine officer, he led a rifle platoon in Vietnam and was awarded a Bronze Star, Purple Heart and two Navy Commendation Medals. As a federal prosecutor he rose quickly through the ranks. And later, as head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, he oversaw high-profile prosecutions that brought victories against targets as varied as Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and New York crime boss John Gotti.
Mueller was driven by a career-long passion for the painstaking work of building successful criminal cases. Even as head of the FBI, he would surprise agents by digging into the details of bureau investigations, some major cases, others less so – sometimes surprising agents who suddenly found themselves on the phone with the director.
“The management books will tell you that as the head of an organization, you should focus on the vision,” Mueller once said. But “for me there were and are today those areas where one needs to be substantially personally involved.”
To those who think President Donald Trump should be driven from office, history would say: Good luck with that.
Removing a president between elections is tough by design, though mechanisms exist. Trump could simply ride out the storm, as various presidents in hot water have done – or find himself on a constitutional or political avenue to an exit. Here’s a look at end-game scenarios that Trump foes dream about and allies may (or may not) have reason to worry about.
Two presidents have been impeached, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Both were acquitted by the Senate. So no president has been driven from office by an impeachment. But a looming impeachment of Richard Nixon, when his support from fellow Republicans had collapsed and devastating evidence had emerged against him, drove him to resign. (Long story short: Nixon was complicit in the coverup of a politically directed burglary of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate building and related misdeeds. The House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach him but he resigned before the full House voted on the matter.)
It starts in the House of Representatives. The House can bring one or more articles of impeachment against a high official with a simple-majority vote. When it does so, that’s a charge of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours,” not a conviction. A trial then is held by the Senate, with the Supreme Court chief justice presiding if the accused is the president. The Senate can find the accused guilty and remove that person from office with a two-thirds majority vote.
Bill Clinton: The Republican-led House impeached Clinton on charges of lying under oath and obstructing justice in his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. The trial lasted five weeks in the Republican-controlled Senate, with senators sworn in as jurors, and ended with acquittal. The Senate split 50-50 on the charge of obstructing justice, well short of a two-thirds majority, and voted 55-45 that he was not guilty of perjury.
Andrew Johnson: After the Civil War, Johnson clashed with a Republican-controlled Congress over reconstruction of the South and his firing of Abraham Lincoln’s war secretary, Edwin M. Stanton. The House approved 11 articles of impeachment and the Senate pursued three, each time falling one vote short of a two-thirds majority. Johnson, acquitted, finished his term.
Meet the 25th Amendment. It came into effect in 1967, as a way to clarify the Constitution’s lines of succession after a calamity like John Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. It wasn’t drawn up to replace unpopular or incompetent presidents but to set a clear process of continuity if a president is disabled, temporarily or permanently, or otherwise unable to fulfil duties. Its use has been non-controversial, guiding Gerald Ford from the vice presidency to the presidency when Nixon stepped down and Ford’s successor as vice-president, for example.
It would take a massive loss of confidence from Trump’s aides and fellow Republicans in Congress for this to work against him. A vice-president and a majority of a Cabinet can temporarily sideline a president. For that to stick and a vice-president to finish out a president’s term, it would require a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of Congress.