What Is a Special Counsel and What Does One Do?
What is a special counsel? Before President Obama nominated Jim Comey as FBI director, he had not made up his mind on who he might appoint to the role. The announcement was something of a surprise. But it’s not the job of the attorney general to make up his mind. The attorney general’s role is to enforce the law as it stands. In the case of the FBI, it has been that way since 1871. As recently as 2000, before 9/11, FBI Director Mueller had expressed a wish to remain head of the bureau, and he was allowed to continue because of who he was.
President Obama on the day he announced his pick for FBI director.
What a Special Counsel DoesThe first and most obvious aspect of a special counsel is this: he or she works to uncover any wrongdoing—political or otherwise—that may have been committed, including any cover-up, by the president or other officials, with the goal of bringing them to justice. In addition to uncovering wrong-doing, a special counsel is, by definition, working to restore public confidence in the FBI and its integrity. The second, and related, aspect of the function of a special counsel is to make recommendations on how to further the public interest by, for example, increasing the public’s confidence that government is working on behalf of the public’s interests without bias against any individuals or groups.
President Trump’s Special Counsel InvestigationThis function of a special counsel—finding wrongdoing—is often the focus of questions about a special counsel’s job. What’s more, it is often an uncomfortable question to ask the FBI director about his or her findings. But to a public that is at times suspicious of the FBI and its mission, that is exactly what a special counsel should do, to get to the truth and then say to the public: we are done; we are finished.
It may not be the case, of course, that a special counsel can do nothing or does nothing. But a special counsel, like any other agency, can do almost nothing. By definition, he or she cannot investigate. And what it means to investigate involves doing lots of work to find the truth. There are, of course, limits to what