Special Counsel

Overview

When President Trump fired FBI director James Comey on May 9, 2017, Comey was investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and what role – if any -- the Trump campaign had in cooperating with the Russian government.  

Eight days later - on May 17, 2017 - Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is in charge of the Justice Department’s Russia investigation following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal, appoints former FBI Director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel to continue the investigation.

CBS News offers a simple Q and A explaining Mueller’s authority and responsibilities:

The powers and limits of Robert Mueller's new job as special counsel

Mueller – a highly regarded former federal prosecutor with true bipartisan support - has the autonomy to follow the investigation of potential Trump campaign cooperation with Russia wherever it may lead.

Special Counsel Office's Website

Focus

Rosenstein’s official appointment order gives Mueller permission to investigate any links or evidence of collaboration between the Russian government and members of the Trump campaign, any additional matters that may come up through the course of that investigation, and any evidence of attempts to interfere with the investigation itself such as perjury, obstruction of justice, witness intimidation, or destruction of evidence.

Notable Developments

July 13, 2018: Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein holds a press conference to announce Special Counsel Robert Mueller has issued a new 29-page indictment charging 12 Russian officers from the G.R.U., Russia's military intelligence agency, with conspiracy, identity theft, and money laundering. Mueller's indictment details how Russian agents hacked into the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the Clinton campaign and distributed stolen material in a large-scale effort to interfere in the 2016 election. 

February 16, 2018: Special Counsel Robert Mueller releases two indictments. One names 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies and charges them with "violating U.S. criminal laws in order to interfere with U.S. elections and political processes. The indictment charges all of the defendants with conspiracy to defraud the United States, three defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five defendants with aggravated identity theft."

A second indictment indicates a California man named Richard Pinedo has pleaded guilty to identity fraud and is cooperating with Mueller. 

December 1, 2017: Former national security advisor Michael Flynn appears in federal court and pleads guilty to one count of lying to the FBI about two conversations he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016, verifying he is cooperating with the special counsel. The White House releases a statement claiming nothing in the charge implicates anyone other than Flynn. However, media reports reveal Flynn is ready to share that a senior Trump transition official instructed him to reach out to Russia, and that afterwards, he called a senior member of the Trump team at Mar-a-Lago to share his conversation.

October 30, 2017: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates turn themselves in to the FBI. They are indicted on 12 counts, including conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money, failure to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts, being an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, and making false statements. Both men plead not guilty and are placed under house arrest. Manafort's bail is set at $10 million. Gates' bail is set at $5 million. 

Shortly after revealing the Manafort and Gates indictments, the Department of Justice unseals its case against former Trump campaign foreign policy advisory George Papadopolous. Papadopolous has pled guilty to lying to the FBI. He was arrested on July 27, 2017 and has been cooperating with government authorities since.

October 5, 2017: CNN reports Mueller's investigators met with Christopher Steele, the former British spy whose memos became a controversial dossier claiming Russia had compromising information it could leverage against President Trump, sometime this past summer. 

September 15, 2017: The Wall Street Journal reports Mueller’s team has gotten a search warrant for Facebook’s records of fake accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency, a pro-Kremlin troll farm, and the 3,000 ads those accounts produced between June 2015 and May 2017. Two days later, CNN confirms Facebook has handed over all relevant information. Facebook’s policy prohibits the social media giant from turning over account information in the absence of a search warrant. Legal experts explain this means Mueller convinced a judge he has evidence of a crime and the Facebook account and ad information will help prove out that crime.

September 13, 2017: Federal investigators are taking a close look at Michael G. Flynn, son of President Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn who was fired in February. NBC News reports Mueller’s team is interested in Michael G. Flynn’s role with his father’s lobbying firm, Flynn Intel Group. When the elder Flynn traveled to Moscow in December 2015 to give a paid speech at a dinner for the state-sponsored network RT, his son traveled with him on RT’s dime.

Michael G. Flynn generated news during the Trump campaign and transition for his inflammatory social media presence. He is responsible for spreading the “pizzagate” conspiracy theory which alleged Secretary of State Clinton ran a child sex-trafficking ring out of the non-existent basement of a DC pizzeria. When a man opened fire in the restaurant, allegedly in response to the fake story, Michael G. Flynn doubled down on the fabrication.

The New York Times reported President-elect Trump fired the younger Flynn from his transition team two days after the pizzeria incident. Vice President Mike Pence appeared on national television that same morning and claimed Michael G. Flynn never had been a part of the transition. Transition spokesman Jason Miller contradicted Pence shortly afterwards, admitting Michael G. Flynn had, in fact, been involved.

September 8, 2017: The Washington Post reports Mueller’s team intends to interview six current and former White House employees including Hope Hicks, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, White House counsel Don McGahn, James Burnham (a McGahn deputy), and Josh Raffel, Jared Kushner’s spokesman. McGahn and Burnham are the staffers whom then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates approached on January 26, 2017 to warn that Michael Flynn was untruthful about his Russian conversations and was at risk of being compromised. Hicks and Raffel were among those on Air Force One as President Trump supervised Donald Trump Jr.’s original statement regarding his June 9, 2016 meeting with the Russians. Priebus would have been involved in the White House’s handling of Flynn as well as present in the Oval Office the day President Trump asked everyone to leave so he could talk to James Comey alone. Spicer, for his part, provided the public with false information as to why Flynn was speaking to Sergey Kislyak during the transition.

In related news, Politico reveals Hicks has hired Justice Department veteran Robert Trout as her personal attorney.

August 31, 2017: The Financial Times reveals and The Associated Press confirms Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, who attended the June 9, 2016 meeting with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower, has testified before one of Mueller’s grand juries.

August 25, 2017: According to NBC News, Mueller issued grand jury subpoenas to public relations executives who worked with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Mueller reportedly is collecting documents and testimony related to a pro-Ukrainian lobbying campaign Manafort organized from 2012 to 2014.

August 10, 2017: Bloomberg reports Mueller has issued grand jury subpoenas “to global banks for account information and records of transactions involving Manafort and some of his companies, as well as those of a long-time business partner Rick Gates.” The Special Counsel’s team also has made overtures to speak with Jeffrey Yohai, Manafort’s son-in-law who is under investigation for allegedly running an investment Ponzi scheme, and Ukrainian oligarch Dmitry Firtash, whose attorney says he is not cooperating.

Late Thursday August 10th, Paul Manafort’s spokesman shares Manafort has changed legal teams, hiring a D.C. firm specializing in complex financial crimes and letting go of his attorney with expertise in congressional investigations.

July 26, 2017: FBI officials raid Paul Manafort’s Alexandria, Virginia home before dawn, seizing documents “related to tax, banking and other matters.” The Washington Post notes Manafort already had turned over 300 pages of material to Senate and House investigating committees, but a search warrant would indicate investigators did not trust Manafort would provide everything requested. The subpoena also named “various corporations formed in Cyprus” as Manafort appears to have routed money he earned from Ukrainian and Russian business interests through bank accounts based in Cyprus.

August 4, 2017: Special Counsel Mueller has asked the White House for documents pertaining to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and The New York Times explains the request shows Mueller not only is looking into Flynn’s failure to register as a foreign agent and his previously undisclosed meetings with Russians but also the full scope of his business dealings. Specifically, Mueller’s team is interested in whether the Turkish government paid Flynn’s consultancy to discredit a political opponent and if Flynn then paid kickbacks to Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish-American businessman, for his help with the deal.

August 3, 2017: The Wall Street Journal is first to report that Mueller is using at least two grand juries as he continues his investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. A grand jury gives Mueller the authority to issue subpoenas and compel witnesses to testify under oath, and according to Reuters, Mueller already has issued subpoenas in relation to the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower.

July 20, 2017: Special Counsel Mueller reportedly is expanding his investigation into Russian campaign interference to include President Trump’s business dealings before he took office and those of his associates. According to Bloomberg Politics, Mueller and his team are looking into “Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008.” Bloomberg also notes federal investigators have absorbed a New York inquiry into former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s financial dealings under suspicion of money laundering. While President Trump told the New York Times he considers any investigation into his business finances out of bounds, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s order appointing Mueller as Special Counsel allows Mueller to follow the Russia interference investigation anywhere it may lead.

July 11, 2017: CNN reports Mueller will investigate the newly discovered June 9, 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya and the emails related to that meeting that Trump Jr. posted on Twitter.

July 4, 2017: The AP reports Mueller has selected lawyers for his team with experience in fighting organized crime, leading to speculation that the Special Counsel’s probe will include looking into Russian criminal networks.

June 14, 2017: The Washington Post reports Mueller’s investigation is expanding to include possible charges of obstruction of justice against President Trump, citing allegations the President encouraged Comey to drop his investigation of Michael Flynn before firing the FBI director.

Potential Outcome

The Special Counsel is the one investigator who has the power to bring charges and pursue prosecution should he find sufficient evidence of criminal wrongdoing.