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Robert Mueller will oversee the Russia investigation. Here’s a look at his background.
USA TODAY

On Wednesday, former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed to be a special counsel to oversee the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and the possibility of collusion between Russia and President Trump’s campaign. 

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. 

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The statute also stipulates that it “would be in the public interest to appoint an outside Special Counsel to assume responsibility for the matter.”

In 1999, then-Attorney General Janet Reno appointed former senator Jack Danforth to investigate the FBI handling of the raid on the…