In one of the many signs that things aren't going well for President Donald Trump, it's become genuinely difficult to keep up with all the different government investigations related to his presidential campaign's ties to Russia and its attempts to sway the 2016 election.
These investigations, however, can be broken down into three categories:
- First, the intertwined Justice Department investigation, now led by a special counsel, into the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
- Second, the investigations led by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, which are broadly looking at Russian intervention in the 2016 election.
- Third, the Senate Judiciary Committee and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have been looking into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's conduct specifically — and have recently expanded their inquiry to the circumstances surrounding former FBI Director James Comey's firing.
These differences matter. They affect both the scope of the investigations and their potential consequences. The Justice Department investigation could lead to criminal charges, for example, while the House and Senate variants could lead to impeachment.
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It's still too early to say whether any of that will happen or how far the investigations will go. But here's what we know so far about each of them.
The Justice Department investigation
What's under investigation: Officially, special counsel Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who is now leading the inquiry, is investigating "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump," as well as crimes that may take place during the course of the investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, and witness intimidation.
This is a broad set of criteria — one that could, conceivably, include whether Trump broke the law when
It's worth noting, too, that there
The potential consequences: Legally, it all depends on the findings. If Mueller finds enough evidence, he could try to indict and convict anyone in the Trump campaign.
"It'd be hard for him to go after Trump directly for all sorts of reasons," Josh Chafetz, who studies the intersection of law and politics at Cornell Law School, told me. "But he could do an awful lot of damage to Trump without ever filing charges against Trump. Remember: In Watergate, [President Richard] Nixon was named as an unindicted co-conspirator, but none of the special prosecutors actually tried to indict Nixon."
A big caveat is the special counsel is much weaker than previous special prosecutors have been. A federal law passed in the aftermath of Watergate shielded special prosecutors, who were then appointed and overseen by a special court. But Congress let that law expire after people on both parties concluded that it actually gave special prosecutors too much independence — essentially letting them infinitely expand the scope of an investigation.
The result is the special counsel can now be fired by the attorney general (or, in this case, the deputy attorney general, since Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself), who, in turn, can be fired by the president. So the president could push the acting attorney general to dismiss the special counsel if he didn't like where the investigation was going.
This, however, seems very unlikely to happen, because it would make Trump and the Justice Department look really, really bad. After all,
That's why, Chafetz said, "as a practical matter, [the special counsel] has a great deal of
The process: Deputy Attorney General Rod
So far, though, we don't know how far along the investigation is. Some reports suggest that grand jury investigations are underway. But since these types of investigations are conducted largely out of the public spotlight, it's hard to say when we'll see any official conclusions, particularly indictments, trials, and verdicts. Generally, these kinds of FBI investigations can take a long time — potentially years. And unlike previous special prosecutors, Mueller's final report will be delivered to the Justice Department and may never be made public.