To Understand #TrumpRussia, You Need to Understand These Terms

May 12th 2017

Mike Rothschild

The various investigations into the alleged ties between the Russian government and President Donald Trump's campaign have inspired a flood of speculation about what's to come, much of it related to legal terms you've probably never heard before. 


Interest in the investigations was piqued once again on Wednesday when the Washington Post reported that special counsel Robert Mueller was now investigating the president for obstruction of justice. But, what does that actually mean? Terms like "obstruction of justice," "special counsel," and "independent commission" are probably new to people who are just catching on this this still developing story, but being able to define them is key to understand what's going on. 

The Term: Obstruction of Justice




What it is: According to the United States Code, anyone who "corruptly or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication, influences, obstructs, or impedes, or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice" has committed obstruction of justice.

What it Means For Trump/Russia: As soon as FBI Director James Comey was fired, speculation raged that Trump had done it to impede his investigation into Russian collusion. The administration initially denied this, offering letters from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein claiming that the firing was done because of Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email scandal.

But Trump himself confirmed that he'd fired Comey because of "this Russia thing" in an interview with NBC. While Comey had informed Trump that he personally wasn't under investigation during his tenure running the FBI, that apparently changed in the last month. The Washington Post reported on June 14th that special counsel Robert Mueller was now investigating the president for obstruction of justice. Comey himself had hinted as much during his Senate testimony the week before. 

While the confirmation is major news, the Post cautions that a criminal indictment of Trump is a long way off, and may not come while he's in office, saying "probing Trump for possible crimes is a complicated affair, even if convincing evidence of a crime were found. The Justice Department has long held that it would not be appropriate to indict a sitting president."

Instead, the writers of the Constitution envisioned impeachment and removal from office as punishment for the misdeeds of a lawbreaking chief executive. Since Republicans control the House, and impeachment is a House function, it almost certainly would take a Democratic win in the 2018 election to start the process. 

The Terms: Special prosecutor/independent counsel/special counsel

What They Are: This is an investigator appointed by the attorney general and given the power to bring criminal charges. They are only used when the regular mechanisms to investigate and punish wrongdoing are compromised by conflicts of interest. Other terms that have been used over time for this position are "independent counsel" and "special counsel." 

What They Mean for Trump/Russia: The most famous special prosecutor was Archibald Cox, who was responsible for investigating the Watergate scandal, a collection of accusations of corruption related to President Richard Nixon and his close associates. In what was dubbed the "Saturday Night Massacre," Nixon ordered the firing of Cox after he refused to cease his requests for private Oval Office tapes recorded by the president. 

After Watergate, the hiring of independent counsels was reformed with the 1978 Ethics in Government Act, which put it in the hands of an independent panel of three judges commissioned by Congress. The Act expired in 1999, partially due to controversy over independent counsel Kenneth Starr's conduct investigating President Bill Clinton for alleged sexual misconduct. 

That put the appointment of special prosecutors back in the domain of the attorney general. When Comey was fired, calls immediately came for the appointment of a special counsel, and with current Attorney General Jeff Sessions having recused himself from the Russia investigation, it was up to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to make the decision.

On May 17th, eight days after Comey was fired, Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to run the investigation into Russia's role in the 2016 election. Mueller has subpoena power, as well as the power to file criminal charges if the investigation warrants. 

The Term: House/Senate Intelligence Committee



What It Is: The legislative sub-groups that oversee the U.S. intelligence community. They have the power to compel testimony, hold witnesses in contempt, issue subpoenas, and make recommendations for further action. But they can't bring criminal charges.

What it Means for Trump/Russia: Though hobbled by a lack of resources, the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into Trump and Russia is proceeding, most recently interviewing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, as well as holding a much anticipated hearing with Comey a week earlier.

The House's investigation had stalled due to partisan politics, but held a hearing on May 6, and issued subpoenas to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, and Trump lawyer Michael Cohen at the end of May.

The Term: Independent Commission

What It Is: A bi-partisan committee of experts, tasked with researching and reporting on a given matter. According to NBC, such commissions are rare and costly, with only seven established since 1989.  Congress used legislation to create the 9/11 Commission in 2002, as well as a commission to report on the financial crisis of 2008.

What it Means for Trump/Russia: Republican Congressman Justin Amash called for an independent commission to investigate Trump and Russia after Comey's firing, believing Congress' ability to do so was compromised. However, because they're created through legislation, it's unlikely the Republican-held Congress would pass a law to create one. And President Trump could simply veto it if they did. 

The Term: Special Select Committee



What it Is: A bi-partisan committee that can originate in either house, these are special committees set up and dissolved on an ad-hoc basis. The House Select Committee on Benghazi is one example, established to assess what really happened in the 2012 Benghazi attacks, and resulting in the discovery of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's private email server. 

What it Means For Trump/Russia: Arizona Senator John McCain called for a special select committee to take over both Congressional investigations into Russia, following Comey's firing. Such a body wouldn't require legislative approval by Trump, and has been endorsed by members of Congress from both parties. It would have the same powers and restrictions as a regular committee. 

The Term: Grand Jury

What it Is: A body of 12 to 23 people that investigate criminal conduct at the county, state, or federal levels by meeting for a few days per month. When a crime has been allegedly committed, prosecutors take their case to a grand jury, which decides if probable cause exists to support criminal charges. If so, they issue an indictment, and an arrest is made.

Law enforcement entities like the FBI don't indict criminals, grand juries do based on the cases made in front of them.

What it Means For Trump/Russia: Rumors have flown on social media of grand juries impaneled by federal prosecutors in New York and Virginia, with indictments being handed down for the Trump/Russia connection.

While the U.S. Attorney's Office in Virginia did issue subpoenas for documents from associates of Michael Flynn, meant for a federal grand jury, it should be noted that despite the rumors, no evidence exists of any criminal indictments having been handed down yet.