FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee June 19, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee...
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Appointment of special counsel raises stakes in Trump’s Russia scandal

Updated
When it comes to the Justice Department’s handling of the investigation into Donald Trump’s Russia scandal, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already recused himself, leaving Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in charge. And as recently as Friday, Rosenstein said he saw no need to appoint a special prosecutor.

The Rachel Maddow Show, 5/18/17, 12:14 AM ET

Five key questions about the Trump-Russia special counsel

Sari Horwitz, Justice Department reporter for The Washington Post, talks with Rachel Maddow about new questions raised by the appointment of Robert Mueller as special counsel to the Trump-Russia investigation.
A lot can happen in five days.
Bowing to public and Congressional pressure, Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Bob Mueller on Wednesday to be a special counsel overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, Justice Department officials said.

Mueller will take command of the prosecutors and FBI agents who are working on the far-reaching Russia investigation, which spans multiple FBI field offices on both coasts.
OK, let’s dig in.

Is Mueller the right person for the job?

Almost certainly, yes. Finding someone who has bipartisan credibility, prosecutorial expertise, and experience with the FBI is exceedingly difficult, but Mueller fits the bill.

Is his appointment good news or bad news for those who take the scandal seriously?

That’s a matter of perspective, of course, but there can be no doubt that the White House and its allies just got a lot more nervous. Donald Trump’s Russia scandal was already heating up, but yesterday’s announcement raised the temperature by several degrees.

Isn’t it a little ironic that Trump’s firing of James Comey led to Mueller’s appointment?

Yep, pretty much.

What is the White House saying about this?

Officially, not a whole lot. The White House wasn’t involved in the process of choosing Mueller – for obvious reasons – and after the Justice Department made the announcement, the president said in a written statement that the investigation “will confirm what we already know – there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity.”

In reality, however, we don’t know “already know” that at all – the matter is still the subject of several investigations – and the scope of FBI counter-espionage probe is broader than this.

How much broader?

Mueller and his team will explore “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.” The Justice Department has also given Mueller the authority to pursue “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation. That would presumably include accusations of the president obstructing justice, evidence of which already exists.

Mueller will also have the powers a federal prosecutor has, including the ability to issue subpoenas and convene grand juries.

Is Mueller a special counsel or a special prosecutor?

Technically, he’s a special counsel, but it seems much of the political world is using the two terms interchangeably.

What’s to stop Trump from simply firing Mueller in the hopes of derailing the investigation?

This gets a little tricky, but he can’t, at least not directly. Mueller will work under the umbrella of Trump’s Justice Department, but the president can’t unilaterally dismiss the special counsel. That said, Mueller’s boss, for all intents and purposes, is Rod Rosenstein, and Trump could fire him. (If Trump ordered Rosenstein to get rid of Mueller, we’d have a new Watergate parallel.)

What about the congressional investigations into the scandal?

By all appearances, those slow-moving probes will move forward, independent of Mueller’s investigation, though there are some new concerns about the sharing of information between the Justice Department and Capitol Hill.

Does this mean there won’t be an independent commission?

One does not necessarily preclude the other, but the likelihood of Congress creating an independent commission is now diminished. There was some growing bipartisan support for the idea as of yesterday, but with Mueller’s appointment, lawmakers will probably back off and see what the special counsel finds.

When will know what Mueller uncovers?

No one knows, but expect a long, thorough investigation. When Comey was ousted, his probe was picking up steam, and I imagine Mueller will try to pick up where Comey left off, but the timeframe is nevertheless open-ended.

Anything else?

Don’t be too surprised if top White House officials start hiring defense attorneys right about now.

Donald Trump, FBI, Justice Department, Russia and Scandals

Appointment of special counsel raises stakes in Trump's Russia scandal

Updated