In July, as part of a profile of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, we asked readers to vote on a few topics in the news that they wanted to have explained. This question won the most votes: What is special counsel Robert Mueller supposed to do?
On May 17, Philadelphia-born Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed a special counsel – former FBI director Robert Mueller – to lead the federal investigation into Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Some readers are still wondering: What, exactly, is Mueller supposed to be doing?
Let's start with a little backstory.
He ran the FBI from 2001 to 2013, serving under Presidents George W. Bush, a Republican, and Barack Obama, a Democrat. He was also a decorated Marine who was awarded a Purple Heart for his service during the Vietnam War.
On March 2, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the FBI's probe into the Russia matter. During his confirmation hearings, Sessions had told Senate leaders he hadn't had any contact with Russian officials in 2016 — a claim that turned out to be, well, false. (As CNN reported at the time, Sessions "met twice last year with the top Russian diplomat" whose interactions with former national security adviser Michael Flynn led Flynn's firing. Both Flynn and Sessions were campaigning for Trump in 2016.)
Two months after Sessions' recusal, President Trump fired James Comey, the director of the FBI. The White House claimed Trump was acting on the advice of Sessions and Rosenstein, who wrote a memo that was deeply critical of Comey's decision during the campaign to publicly share "his own conclusions" about the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's private server and missing emails, "without the authorization of duly appointed Justice Department leaders."
But Trump then turned around and told NBC that he had made up his mind to fire Comey before consulting with Rosenstein or Sessions, and thought "this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story."
Rosenstein saw only one recourse: appointing an investigator unconnected to the campaigns, the Justice Department or the Trump administration to get to the bottom of everything. He summed up Mueller's duties in this order:
Rosenstein's order enabled Mueller to take over the investigative work the FBI had done to that point. But Rosenstein also gave Mueller a wide berth to expand his investigation to "any matters that arose or may arise directly" as he probes any ties the Russian government had with people associated with Trump's campaign.
According to the 1999 guidelines that defined the special counsel's powers, Mueller can prosecute crimes that occur during the course of the investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, or the destruction of any evidence. He's not subject to day-to-day supervision, but could be asked by Rosenstein to explain steps his team is taking.
Trump could order Rosenstein to fire Mueller, but Rosenstein has said there would have to be a legitimate reason for him to make such a move. "If there were not good cause," he said, "it wouldn't matter to me what anybody says."