Ex-FBI director Robert Mueller has been appointed as special counsel to probe possible ties between President Donald Trump's campaign and the Russian government. DW takes a look at the appointment and the investigation.
What's the scope of the special counsel investigation?
According to the order appointing Robert Mueller as special counsel, he is authorized to investigate "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump."
The order also states - and this could broadly expand the reach of the probe - that the special counsel can look into "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation" and "any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a)."
The latter paragraph refers to the jurisdiction of a special counsel and authorizes him or her to also "investigate and prosecute federal 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; and to conduct appeals arising out of the matter being investigated and/or prosecuted."
Taken together, this means that while the original focus of the investigation is to look into possible ties between the Kremlin and Trump associates during the presidential campaign, the scope of the probe can be expanded if merited by what is discovered. It is also noteworthy in light of recent events surrounding the firing of FBI director James Comey that the special counsel in the course of his probe can also investigate federal crimes such as "obstruction of justice" and "intimidation of witnesses."
"That's the nature of these investigations - that once you begin to look at one set of issues, one quickly realizes that they are connected to others," said James Davis, an American scholar and dean of the School of Economics and Political Science at St. Gallen University in Switzerland.
Who is Robert Mueller anyway?
Mueller was nominated as director of the FBI by Republican President George W. Bush in 2001 and served under Bush, as well as under his Democratic successor Barack Obama, until 2013. That the native New Yorker, a trained lawyer, is prepared to act independently if necessary and is not easily scared by political pressure is best evidenced by a climactic episode that curiously also involves James Comey.
In 2004 FBI director Mueller, together with James Comey, then deputy attorney general, rejected demands from the White House to reinstate the controversial domestic surveillance that had been put in place by the Bush administration after 9/11. When the White House overruled them, they threatened to resign until they received presidential assurances that the program would be overhauled.
"He is a guy who has a lot of integrity on both sides of the aisle, as well as within the FBI and the Department of Justice, so I think this is a good choice," said Davis.
What powers does a special counsel have?
Essentially, a special counsel has the same powers as a regular federal prosecutor, with the difference being that he or she operates outside of the normal Justice Department hierarchy. Special counsels have their own budget, can hire their own staff, and investigate, subpoena and prosecute individuals.
But how independent is the special counsel from the Trump administration?
If, as reported, the White House really did learn only one hour ahead of the public that a special counsel had been appointed, this could serve as an indication of the Justice Department's desire to show that this really is an independent investigation.
It is also noteworthy because the two top officials at the Justice Department have now essentially taken themselves out of the Russia investigation. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had already recused himself from the probe in March. And since his deputy Rod Rosenstein wrote the official recommendation to fire Comey, he has now also been drawn into the Russia-Comey matter and therefore will likely try to steer clear of the investigation as much as possible.
"Every effort has been made that he can operate as independently as possible," said Davis.
How dangerous is this for President Trump himself?
"It's a very dangerous situation if the president has something to hide,” said Davis, because Mueller will follow wherever the investigation will take him. "We just don't know what type of pressure the president will put on Mueller. But I have no doubts that he is up to that task."
To be clear, it is also entirely possible, as the president has said, that the investigation will reveal no wrongdoing on his part.
How long will the investigation take?
The investigation is open-ended, and at this point it is impossible to say how long it might take and what its outcome could be. Mueller will first need some time to set up his office before he can really begin with the probe. How long the investigation takes then depends on what Mueller does or does not find.
"This is all going to keep us busy in the summer and into the fall and perhaps, depending on what's found, going forward," said Davis.