Intense political partisanship in the United States has rendered Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s report into a debate over whether President Donald J. Trump committed a crime. Trump himself, the White House, and most Congressional Republicans say he didn’t, while Democratic legislators and presidential candidates say he did.
The fervor overshadows two key aspects of Mueller’s role and his report, say political and legal professors at Northeastern University. First, Mueller was appointed as a special counsel, not an independent counsel—a distinction that limits the scope of his investigation and powers. Second, Mueller’s report did clearly spell out a troubling allegation: There were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.
“That allegation deserves the attention of every American,” Mueller said Wednesday during his first public remarks since the investigation began nearly two years ago.
The news conference, which lasted less than 20 minutes, was an opportunity for Mueller to “close up shop, and to thank and congratulate his staff for their highly professional behavior,” says Michael Meltsner, who is the George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law at Northeastern.
Mueller was signaling that he “will not become a political player; he was protecting the integrity of the investigation,” Meltsner says.
On Wednesday, Mueller officially closed the Special Counsel’s Office, resigned from the Justice Department, and said he’s “returning to private life.” He reiterated the findings in the report, which include a grand jury indictment of nearly a dozen Russian intelligence officers who launched “a concerted attack on our political system,” Mueller said.
The allegation of election interference isn’t getting the same attention as Mueller’s careful language about his investigation of the President’s possible implication in a crime, which has been parsed by journalists and Congressional representatives alike.
This attention imbalance among legislators likely has a political motivation, says Costas Panagopoulos, who is a professor of political science at Northeastern.
The Republican-controlled Senate “isn’t as alarmed about it because it suits their interests,” Panagopoulos says. The grand jury indictment alleges that Russian intelligence agencies used sophisticated cyber techniques to hack the computers and networks used by the Clinton campaign.
The scrutiny over Trump’s role in the Russian attempt to interfere in the election also obscures a key piece of information about Mueller’s role in investigating it. Mueller was appointed as a special counsel, and as such he was “part of the Justice Department structure” and bound by its rules, which precluded him from even considering an indictment of the president, Meltsner says.
It’s a different role than that of Archibald Cox in the Watergate investigation or Ken Starr in the Bill Clinton investigation. Cox and Starr were independent counsel, appointed under a different (now-defunct) federal statute than Mueller. Their role as independent counsel gave them more freedom to act than Mueller’s role allowed him, Meltsner says.
“That was the criticism of the independent counsel, and why the statute no longer exists; it was seen almost as a fourth branch of government,” Meltsner says.
Mueller meanwhile, in his report, his statement, and his role overall “is sticking to the rules and structures of his task,” Meltsner says. “He’s not defining himself as a commentator on CNN, or MSNBC, or Fox News.”