Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election and any collusion between Russia and high-ranking aides to President Trump.
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Mueller’s probe will ultimately be overseen by Rosenstein. In March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from all matters relating to the presidential election.
What can a special counsel do?
The position of special counsel gives Mueller a great deal of freedom to conduct the inquiry as he sees fit, including the ability to "prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation" if he believes it "necessary and appropriate," according to Rosenstein's order.
The "General Powers of Special Counsel" are elucidated in Title 28 of the Code of Federal Regulations. In addition to his investigatory and prosecutorial abilities with relation to the interference in the election, as set out by Rosenstein, Mueller is also granted the capacity to pursue crimes committed in the course of his probe. These include "perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence and intimidation of witnesses."
Mueller will have the same powers of a U.S. attorney (Mueller himself served as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California from 1998-2001). As special counsel, Mueller can bring matters to a grand jury, which would then determine whether to issue criminal charges. He can also issue subpoenas to compel individuals and organizations to provide evidence or testimony and request that additional investigators be assigned to the case.
What happens next?
The Code of Federal Regulations gives Mueller 60 days from his appointment to develop a budget for the coming fiscal year, which Rosenstein will approve. Should the investigation last longer than a year, Mueller is required to submit a new budget 90 days prior to the start of each successive fiscal year.
Rosenstein's oversight isn't limited to budgetary matters. While Mueller isn't "subject to the day-to-day supervision" of the Justice Department, he is required to report "significant events" to the acting attorney general over the course of the inquiry. Rosenstein can further request explanation for decisions in the investigation and ultimately has the power to remove Mueller for "for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of Departmental policies."
Mueller's lack of complete independence was a sticking point for some Democrats Wednesday. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called for an autonomous commission outside the umbrella of the Justice Department, such as the bipartisan 9/11 Commission, which was created by Congress to investigate the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Director Mueller will still be in the chain of command under the Trump-appointed leadership of the Justice Department," Pelosi said in a statement Wednesday. "He cannot take the place of a truly independent, outside commission that is completely free from the Trump administration’s meddling."
Mueller has wide latitude to staff his team. Not only is he able to assign Justice Department employees to the investigation, he can also request that non-departmental workers be assigned. These could include federal agents, attorneys and investigators who are already working on the case or those who are entirely new to the probe, at Mueller's discretion.
At the conclusion of the investigation -- which does not have a set timetable -- Mueller will provide a confidential report to Rosenstein "explaining the prosecution or declination decisions" that he has reached. It is then Rosenstein's duty to brief the leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees on the outcome. He may also release Mueller's findings publicly, given any legal or confidentiality restrictions.