What is a special counsel? Timeline of appointments

The Justice Department announced Wednesday that it has appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to oversee the federal investigation of alleged Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, and any possible collusion between Russian counterparts and the Trump campaign.

The decision comes after congressional Democrats made repeated calls to enlist an independent special prosecutor to take over the investigation. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the decision to appoint a special counsel, adding it was “not a finding that crimes have been committed” or that “prosecution is warranted.”

The terms special counsel, special prosecutor and independent counsel are largely the same, though there are distinctions in how each is appointed. 

Here’s a timeline of special counsel and other such appointments throughout American history:

1875: Whiskey Ring Scandal

President Ulysses S. Grant appointed special prosecutor John B. Henderson to investigate a conspiracy by a group of whiskey distillers who planned to avoid paying federal taxes, and use the unpaid money to help fund Grant’s re-election. Henderson’s investigation led to 238 indictments, including Grant’s personal secretary, Orville Babcock. Grant fired Henderson and replaced him with James Broadhead. Grant then testified in his secretary’s defense, and Babcock was acquitted. 110 others were convicted on charges related to tax fraud.

(Special prosecutor, appointed by the president)

1881: Star Route Scandal

President James Garfield appointed special prosecutor William Cook to investigate postal contracts that were awarded to so-called “star routes” in the West and Southwest. Cook’s investigation led to 25 indictments on bribery charges.

(Special prosecutor, appointed by the president)

1903: Post Office Bribery

President Theodore Roosevelt’s attorney general, Philander Knox, appointed two special prosecutors -- Charles J. Bonparte and Holmes Conrad -- to investigate another bribery scheme at the Post Office, leading to 30 indictments of Post Office officials and private contractors.

(Special prosecutors, appointed by the attorney general) 

1905: Oregon Land Fraud

Roosevelt’s Attorney General Knox appointed another special prosecutor, Francis J. Heney, to investigate a land fraud scheme in Oregon, leading to the indictments of 100 people, including two senators.

(Special prosecutor, appointed by the attorney general) 

1924: Teapot Dome scandal

President Calvin Coolidge appointed special prosecutors Atlee Pomerene and Owen Roberts to probe the leasing of oil fields, including Wyoming’s Teapot Dome reserve. Interior Secretary Albert Bacon Fall was convicted of bribery five years later.

(Special prosecutor, appointed by the president)

1952: Justice Department Corruption

After a congressional investigation uncovered a conspiracy among DOJ and IRS officials, President Truman appointed special prosecutor Newbold Morris, who was given the title of “special assistant attorney general.” Morris’ investigation demanded that almost 600 DOJ officials turn in personal finance questionnaires, but when the attorney general, J. Howard McGrath refused, he fired Morris, resigned, and Truman did not name another special prosecutor.

(Special prosecutor, appointed by the president)

1973: Watergate

Attorney General Elliot Richarson appointed special prosecutor Archibald Cox to lead the Watergate investigation. Cox subpoenaed Oval Office recordings made by President Richard Nixon, but he fought the order in court. When a federal appeals court ordered Nixon turn over the tapes, Nixon fired Cox, and the deputy attorney general, William D. Ruckelshaus, resigned in protest -- this became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” Under pressure, Nixon was forced to appoint another special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who ultimately obtained the tapes after a Supreme Court ruling.

(Special prosecutor, appointed by the attorney general)

 1986: Iran-contra

A three-judge panel appointed an independent counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, to investigate President Ronald Reagan’s administration’s sale of weapons to Iran. Walsh concluded that the administration had illegally sold the weapons to ensure the release of U.S. hostages. Fourteen U.S. officials faced criminal charges, and 11 were convicted, including Reagan’s national security adviser Navy Adm. John M. Poindexter and Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, but no one served prison time after the seven-year, $39 million investigation.

(Independent counsel, appointed by a three-judge panel)

1994: Whitewater/Monica Lewinsky

Attorney General Janet Reno appointed Robert B. Fiske Jr. as special counsel to investigate the business dealings of the Whitewater Development Corp., formed by President Bill Clinton, first lady Hillary Clinton, and their two partners, who were ultimately convicted of fraud. Ken Starr’s probe ultimately expanded to include the president’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his statements under oath about the relationship. Clinton was impeached in 1998 for perjury and obstruction of justice, but the Senate acquitted him in 1999.

(Special counsel, appointed by the attorney general)

2003: Valerie Plame

Attorney General John Ashcroft recused himself in an investigation into whether George W. Bush administration officials illegally leaked to a journalist the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Because Ashcroft recused himself, just as current Attorney General Jeff Sessions did in the Russia case, the decision fell to then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who appointed special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald to lead the two-year investigation. Fitzgerald wanted New York Times reporter Judith Miller to identify the source of the leak, but she refused and spent three months in jail in 2005, because she promised to protect a confidential source.

(Special Prosecutor, appointed by deputy attorney general)