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How Much Independence Will Special Counsel Have?

From left, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, named special prosecutor to the investigation of Russia's involvement in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and President Donald Trump.
How Much Independence Will Special Counsel Have?
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Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gave his reason for naming a special counsel to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election: trust.

Rosenstein said it is important Americans “have full confidence” in the “outcome” of the Russia investigation.

For that to happen, Rosenstein said, he needed to name a person “who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.”

That person is Robert Mueller, a former federal prosecutor and FBI director. His selection Wednesday was praised by both Democrats and Republicans.

Rosenstein’s order says Mueller can investigate Russia’s efforts to interfere with the presidential election, possible connections between Russia and Trump campaign officials and any other matters that “arise directly from the investigation.”

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein arrives Thursday for a closed-door meeting with Senators after appointing a special counsel.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein arrives Thursday for a closed-door meeting with Senators after appointing a special counsel.

Mueller will have more independence than the 94 U.S. attorneys who normally oversee criminal investigations.

But he won’t have complete independence.

Mueller, unlike other federal prosecutors, will not be subject to day-to-day supervision by the attorney general and other Justice Department officials. But the deputy attorney general can overrule his “prosecutorial or investigative decisions.”

Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, is overseeing the Russian investigation because Attorney General Jeff Sessions removed himself. Sessions withdrew because he worked on the Trump campaign and met with Russian officials.

Mueller’s appointment came after some unexpected developments in the Russia investigation.

Last week, President Donald Trump dismissed FBI Director James Comey, who was overseeing the FBI’s collection of evidence.

The dismissal was followed by reports claiming that Trump had asked Comey to drop an investigation of his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Another report said Trump had asked Comey if he would be “loyal” to him.

The White House denied both claims but some Democrats say Trump should be investigated for obstruction of justice.

John Barrett is a law professor at St. John’s University in New York. Barrett had earlier worked for a special federal prosecutor. He said obstruction of justice is a complex law.

Among other things, it makes it a crime to obstruct, influence or impede any official proceeding for corrupt reasons.

Barrett said Trump’s actions should be investigated. It will depend on whether Comey and others saw Trump’s comments as threats, Barrett said.

Other important investigations in U.S. history

Special counsels have only been named twice. The last time was in 2003 when prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald investigated who leaked the identity of a CIA officer, Valerie Plame.

Former CIA operative Valerie Plame testifies before Congress in 2007.
Former CIA operative Valerie Plame testifies before Congress in 2007.

“Watergate” is the best known case involving a special prosecutor. Archibald Cox was appointed to investigate whether President Richard Nixon had obstructed justice. The case centered on whether Nixon covered up his administration’s involvement in the 1973 break-in at Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building.

Nixon resigned from office in 1974 -- as Congress was ready to begin proceedings to remove him from office.

Another well-known case was the investigation of President Bill Clinton by Kenneth Starr. It started out as an investigation into a real estate deal known as Whitewater. But it led to Starr reporting that Clinton had covered up an affair with a White House intern.

Former President Bill Clinton giving a speech in 2004.
Former President Bill Clinton giving a speech in 2004.

Special prosecutors had more independence than a special counsel, the job Mueller now has. But the law establishing the prosecutor position ended in 1999.

The Mueller investigation probably will not be finished quickly. The Washington Post reported that, on average, previous investigations by special counsels or prosecutors took a little over three years.

Ari Fleischer, the press secretary during the George W. Bush administration, tweeted Thursday that Mueller will not take any more time than needed.

“Starr was 48 when named special prosecutor,” he tweeted. “Fitzgerald was 43 when named special counsel. Mueller is 72. He won't want this to take years.”

I'm Bruce Alpert.

And I'm Anne Ball.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

confidence - n. a feeling or belief that something will be done or that you will succeed

chain of command - n. the order in which people have authority over decisions in an organization

prosecutor - n. a lawyer who represents the side in a court case that accuses a person of a crime and who tries to prove that the person is guilty

obstruction - n. to stop something you oppose from happening

impede - v. stops or makes more difficult

leak - v. to give secret or unknown information to someone such as a newspaper reporter so it becomes known to the public

arise - v. develops