Special counsel appointed to investigate Russia-Trump ties: Three key questions

The presence of former FBI Director Robert Mueller III at the head of a semi-independent probe should provide structure and restore some measure of order to the investigation. Some questions ahead.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who has now been appointed special counsel to investigate ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, listens as he testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2012. 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. (

The Justice Department’s appointment of a special counsel to investigate ties between President Trump’s campaign and Russian officials should provide structure and some measure of order for a Washington situation that was threatening to spin out of control.

Indeed, the presence of former FBI Director Robert Mueller III at the head of a semi-independent probe may provide the White House something of a respite. It provides a ready answer to further questions about Russia on developments both old and new. “Mr. Mueller is looking into that. We defer comment until his work is complete.”

Mueller’s reputation may provide some comfort for ordinary citizens worried about the nation’s direction. He’s highly respected for probity on both sides of the political aisle. His personal presence may guarantee fuller independence for a position that remains nominally subservient to the Justice Department hierarchy, and thus the president himself. It’s true President Trump could fire his special counsel if he really feels like it, but that would result in a political explosion far beyond what we’ve already experienced.

That said, the country is now in the unknown, and the Trump administration faces a wholly different political future. Some questions on the path ahead:

How long will this take? For Trump, the tradeoff is a respite now, versus a process that suddenly appears never-ending. It could take Mueller several months to establish a structure and study what the FBI has learned to this point. Then he really begins. If past special investigations are any guide, the investigation will be lengthy. It is now certain to be in the headlines at least through the 2018 midterms, and quite possibly into the 2020 presidential election, with uncertain consequences. It’s conceivable that Mueller remains at work after Trump has left office.

What’s his focus? The statement from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein establishing Mueller’s inquiry clearly charges him with looking at links between Trump officials, past and present, and Russia. Beyond that, is he supposed to consider larger issues related to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election? That’s possible, but unclear. Mr. Rosenstein also states that Mueller has authority to pursue matters that arise in the course of his work. This aspect of a special counsel – the ability to extend and modify targets as they see fit – can become a huge problem for its targets.

Who’s in trouble? President Trump has insisted that he is not under investigation, and that there is no evidence of collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin. That may be true now, but given that the investigation will proceed, anyone connected to the campaign, including its head, remains a target of interest. In addition, the known legal problems of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign chief Paul Manafort appear to be serious. The job of a Justice Department special counsel, unlike that of a congressional committee, is to pursue people they believe broke the law, and prosecute them. That’s why the result of Mueller’s appointment could well be dramatic, however long it takes to appear.

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