USA Today explains the difference between special counsel and special prosecutors, after Robert Mueller’s appointment to head the probe of Russian ties with the Trump campaign. 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. 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 Watergate scandal, Congress created “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, as well as the president, has the power to appoint special counsel.
The law on 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. In 1999, Attorney General Janet Reno appointed former Sen. John Danforth (R-MO) to investigate the FBI handling of the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tx.