The decision was taken by Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein after Attorney-General Jeff Sessions recused himself from this matter due to a conflict of interest.
The decision arrived a few days after Trump fired the FBI director, James Comey, and reports began to emerge about Trump having tried to interfere with the investigation.
The special investigation is likely to end in one of two ways: the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, or the beginning of his second term.
Special counsels have often been appointed to handle investigations involving members of the executive branch. They were especially common between the post-Watergate years and 1999, as there were specific legal provisions during that time on the use and appointment of special counsels (then called independent counsels). That legislation lapsed in 1999 and was not renewed or replaced by Congress.
Between the Carter administration and the end of the Clinton administration, a total of 20 independent counsels were appointed and held their investigations.
But a president being the direct object of the investigations of a special counsel is quite uncommon. In fact, throughout American history only two special counsels were directly entrusted with investigating a sitting president. The first was Archibald Cox, special prosecutor for the Watergate scandal. The second was Ken Starr, independent counsel for the Whitewater scandal first and the Lewinsky affair later.
Mueller’s mandate is not specifically to investigate Trump. Instead, it contains reference to a general co-ordination between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. But the bulk of the investigation will concern the direct involvement of high-profile members of the administration, including Sessions and, ultimately, Trump.
This has the potential to severely cripple and undermine Trump’s administration, as well as his support among voters. Should evidence emerge that Trump himself was aware of any contact between his campaign and the Russian government, it could destroy his presidency.
As both the Watergate investigation of Richard Nixon and the Whitewater investigation of Bill Clinton show, these probes are highly unpredictable.
Nixon’s role in the Watergate cover-up emerged slowly over the course of a two-year investigation. In the end it could only be demonstrated because Nixon himself chose to record conversations in the White House.
Clinton, on the other hand, was being investigated for real estate investments in Arkansas and ended up impeached for lying about having sexual relations with a White House intern.
Time will tell whether or not Mueller will directly investigate Trump. For the moment, the widespread reports that Trump has asked Comey to drop the investigation on Michael Flynn’s relations with Russian officials do not look good for the president.
In the past 25 years, American presidents were always awarded a second term in office. My research based on the US Congress shows that a scandal is often the only way that incumbents lose office in the US. It also shows that those who survive a scandal tend to regain electoral support after only a few years.
Nixon and his presidency did not survive the Watergate probe. Clinton, on the other hand, was successful in dealing with a special prosecutor who essentially was dedicated to investigating him for almost the entirety of his eight years as president.
Less than four months into his presidency, Trump will now have to deal with considerable scrutiny of his actions and those of his closest advisers. Ultimately, it is probable that this whole scandal ends in one of two ways: the end of his presidency, or the beginning of his second term.
Dr Rodrigo Praino is Lecturer, School of Social and Policy Studies, Flinders University. He receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and UNICEF.
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