Robert S. Mueller III was appointed as Special Counsel to oversee the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia on May 17, 2017. Prior to his appointment, Mueller accrued an impressive record of serving his country, dating back to his time as a Marine in Vietnam, for which he received a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. He was appointed to lead the FBI by President George Bush, and was unanimously confirmed twice for this position, becoming the longest-tenured head of the agency since J. Edgar Hoover.
Calls for a Special Counsel began after Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation into the 2016 election after concerns were raised over his Russian contacts; Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a registered Republican, then stepped in to oversee the investigation and appointed Mueller, who is also a Republican.
Congressional Republicans initially praised Mueller’s appointment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) stated that he had “a lot of confidence in Bob Mueller.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) stated that he “[welcomed Mueller’s] role at the Department of Justice.” Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) said in reference to the Russia investigation: “I see it as a positive thing, especially having Bob Mueller involved. It brings a lot of public credibility to whatever process they go through.”
Republican began criticizing Mueller in late 2017. In November 2017, three Republican lawmakers introduced a bill calling for Mueller to step down, alleging that he was unable to be sufficiently impartial as a result of his previous post at the FBI. Further criticism came in December 2017, when it was revealed that two former Mueller investigators had sent anti-Trump texts to one another, sparking allegations that, although the agents were no longer on Mueller’s team and had criticized Democratic officials as well, the investigation was compromised. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein subsequently testified before the House Judiciary Committee; he fielded questions about the these former members of Mueller’s team, and stated that he did not believe there was currently good cause to fire Mueller or shut down the investigation.
Trump has made several statements that suggest that he has considered firing Mueller or may otherwise attempt to prematurely end the investigation. For example, in July 2017, Trump told The New York Times that he believes his finances are outside the scope of Mueller’s probe, and that investigating the Trump Organization would be a “violation.” In December, however, Trump announced he had no plans to fire Mueller; he also told The New York Times he he is “going to be treated fairly,” but that he believes the investigation makes the U.S. look “very bad.” Trump has also bragged of his “complete power to pardon,” which many interpreted as a sign that he may pardon any campaign or administration officials caught up in the probe; however, he has yet to issue any pardons related to the Mueller indictments. On March 17, 2018, after the firing of Andrew McCabe and amid reports that Mueller had subpoenaed documents regarding the Trump Organization’s attempts to do business in Russia, Trump’s lawyer John Dowd emailed a reporter from The Daily Beast suggesting that Mueller should be fired; Dowd at first claimed he was speaking for the president, then backpedaled, saying he had only spoken for himself. The next morning, Trump criticized Mueller by name on Twitter for the first time.
Despite Republican attempts to discredit the Mueller investigation, the results of Mueller’s effort speak volumes.
- On October 5, 2017, Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian-linked individuals during the campaign. Papadopoulos pursued these contacts with the intention of connecting the Trump team to Russian government officials.
- On October 27, 2017, Mueller indicted Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business associate and senior Trump aide Rick Gates on charges of conspiracy against the United States for their work with pro-Russian parties in Ukraine. Manafort and Gates were indicted on twelve charges, including counts of conspiracy and money laundering that link to Manafort’s lobbying work for a pro-Russian Ukrainian politician. Both men pleaded not guilty and were placed under house arrest.
- On December 1, 2017, former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts he had with the Russian ambassador during the Trump transition period. Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak represented “a coordinated effort by Mr. Trump’s aides to create foreign policy before they were in power.”
- On February 16, 2018, the Special Counsel indicted 13 Russian individuals and three Russian entities, including the Internet Research Agency, for their participation in an “information warfare” scheme to assist the Trump campaign in the 2016 election. The indictment details how the Russian trolls carried out an extensive social-media operation costing more than $1 million per month and including outreach to American grassroots organizations and at least one local chapter of the official Trump campaign. The Special Counsel also charged an individual named Richard Pinedo with identity fraud in relation to the scheme; he pleaded guilty.
- On February 20, 2018, the Special Counsel indicted the London-based lawyer Alex van der Zwaan for allegedly lying to investigators about his work with Manafort and Gates in Ukraine. Van der Zwaan reportedly assisted Manafort and Gates with a report accusing the former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko of corruption. Van der Zwaan pled guilty to the charges.
- On February 22, Mueller filed additional charges against Manafort and Gates; Gates pleaded guilty the next day, after which Mueller filed a superseding indictment of charges against Manafort alleging that Manafort had “secretly retained a group of former senior European politicians to take positions favorable to Ukraine, including by lobbying in the United States.”
- On March 27, the Justice Department filed a sentencing memorandum in the case against van der Zwaan, which alleged that Rick Gates was in contact with an individual tied to the Russian intelligence service while he was working on the campaign. On April 3, van der Zwaan was sentenced to 30 days in prison, and will reportedly pay a $20,000 fine.
- On June 4, Mueller accused Manafort of attempted witness tampering, which, shortly thereafter, resulted in Manafort’s bail being revoked. On June 8, Mueller filed another superseding indictment against Manafort, adding charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. That indictment also included Konstantin Kilimnik, a business associate of Manafort purported to have connections to Russian intelligence.
- On July 13, 2018, the Special Counsel indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers who carried out cyber operations related to Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. Mueller alleged that the Russians were responsible for hacking the DNC, DCCC, and the Clinton campaign, as well as staging an elaborate scheme by which the documents they stole would be released. That allegedly included creating the DCLeaks and Guccifer personas, which were used to disseminate documents, as well as passing them on to other entities, such as WikiLeaks.
- On August 21, 2018, a federal jury in Alexandria, Virginia, found Paul Manafort guilty on eight charges, including tax fraud, hiding foreign bank accounts, and bank fraud. The judge declared a mistrial on 10 other charges. Additionally, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, also pleaded guilty in a Manhattan federal court to eight criminal counts, including tax fraud and campaign finance violations. It appears that these charges are unconnected to the Special Counsel investigation.