'Special counsel' or 'special prosecutor': What's the difference?

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has named former FBI director Robert Mueller to the position of "special counsel" to investigate the Trump administration's ties to Russia. 

Many media outlets are describing Mueller as a "special prosecutor."  In fact, the term "special counsel" has replaced the terms "special prosecutor" and "independent counsel" to describe an investigation undertaken by the Department of Justice where there is a potential conflict of interest with the executive branch or where there are "extraordinary circumstances" that warrant an independent investigation.

Both the attorney general and the president have the power to name a special counsel.  (Congress can recommend the appointment of a special counsel, but DoJ is under no statutory obligation to accept that recommendation.) 

So what is a special counsel? And what is the difference between a special counsel, a special prosecutor, and an independent counsel? The terms are largely interchangeable to refer to someone appointed to investigate allegations that could involve a conflict of interest within the Department of Justice. But the manner in which they are appointed and why has changed over time. 

The president has always had the authority to name a special prosecutor. After the crisis brought on by the Watergate scandal, Congress passed a law creating an "independent counsel" who could be appointed by a three-judge panel. After the experiences of the Iran-Contra investigation and the probe into the Clinton's Whitewater land deal, there was bipartisan support to abandon that law. Now, the attorney general, in addition to the president, has the power to appoint a special counsel. 

The statute regarding the grounds for appointing a special counsel says the attorney general, or acting attorney general in cases where the attorney general is recused, can appoint a special counsel when a case presents a "conflict of interest" for the Justice Department, or "other extraordinary circumstances." In this case, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was able to appoint Mueller because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself. 

Mueller will have broad investigative authority with very limited oversight.  Basically, he can investigate anything he wants, including any tangential issues that may be unrelated to his original probe.  He is a power unto himself, which is why most presidents fear people in his role. 

Many media outlets are using "special prosecutor" to describe the special counsel even though it really doesn't apply anymore because it's a term loaded with historical implications, bringing to mind as it does Watergate-era wrongdoing by President Nixon.  It's just another way for liberals to politicize the entire process in order to bring the president down.

It will be interesting to see where Mueller's Russia investigation takes him.  Will he investigate Democrats with ties to the Kremlin?  Not nearly as publicized as the Trump campaign's Russia connections, the Democrats have their own conflict of interest problems with the Kremlin that a good prosecutor should fully investigate. 

Mueller has a reputation for stubborn independence and is widely respected by both parties on the Hill.  Whether you call him a "special prosecutor" or a "special counsel," the Justice Department has now set in motion the machinery of law that could either expose the hysterical opposition against the president for the rabid partisan politics it is or lead to serious charges of high crimes and misdemeanors against President Donald Trump, resulting in his impeachment.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has named former FBI director Robert Mueller to the position of "special counsel" to investigate the Trump administration's ties to Russia. 

Many media outlets are describing Mueller as a "special prosecutor."  In fact, the term "special counsel" has replaced the terms "special prosecutor" and "independent counsel" to describe an investigation undertaken by the Department of Justice where there is a potential conflict of interest with the executive branch or where there are "extraordinary circumstances" that warrant an independent investigation.

Both the attorney general and the president have the power to name a special counsel.  (Congress can recommend the appointment of a special counsel, but DoJ is under no statutory obligation to accept that recommendation.) 

So what is a special counsel? And what is the difference between a special counsel, a special prosecutor, and an independent counsel? The terms are largely interchangeable to refer to someone appointed to investigate allegations that could involve a conflict of interest within the Department of Justice. But the manner in which they are appointed and why has changed over time. 

The president has always had the authority to name a special prosecutor. After the crisis brought on by the Watergate scandal, Congress passed a law creating an "independent counsel" who could be appointed by a three-judge panel. After the experiences of the Iran-Contra investigation and the probe into the Clinton's Whitewater land deal, there was bipartisan support to abandon that law. Now, the attorney general, in addition to the president, has the power to appoint a special counsel. 

The statute regarding the grounds for appointing a special counsel says the attorney general, or acting attorney general in cases where the attorney general is recused, can appoint a special counsel when a case presents a "conflict of interest" for the Justice Department, or "other extraordinary circumstances." In this case, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was able to appoint Mueller because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself. 

Mueller will have broad investigative authority with very limited oversight.  Basically, he can investigate anything he wants, including any tangential issues that may be unrelated to his original probe.  He is a power unto himself, which is why most presidents fear people in his role. 

Many media outlets are using "special prosecutor" to describe the special counsel even though it really doesn't apply anymore because it's a term loaded with historical implications, bringing to mind as it does Watergate-era wrongdoing by President Nixon.  It's just another way for liberals to politicize the entire process in order to bring the president down.

It will be interesting to see where Mueller's Russia investigation takes him.  Will he investigate Democrats with ties to the Kremlin?  Not nearly as publicized as the Trump campaign's Russia connections, the Democrats have their own conflict of interest problems with the Kremlin that a good prosecutor should fully investigate. 

Mueller has a reputation for stubborn independence and is widely respected by both parties on the Hill.  Whether you call him a "special prosecutor" or a "special counsel," the Justice Department has now set in motion the machinery of law that could either expose the hysterical opposition against the president for the rabid partisan politics it is or lead to serious charges of high crimes and misdemeanors against President Donald Trump, resulting in his impeachment.

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