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Special Counsel, Independent Investigation?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

While the news media and pundits are covering the investigation and potential link between the Russian government and Trump's campaign, their ongoing fascination with who said what, how and to whom can obscure understanding of the larger issues. This might confuse many who don't have the time to follow this on a full-time basis. So here is a recap of what has happened so far.

On May 17, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as special counsel of the Department of Justice to investigate "any links and or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and (ii) any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; and (iii) any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. 600.4(a)."

This last list of numbers includes "the authority to investigate and prosecute federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the Special Counsel's investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence and intimidation of witnesses; and to conduct appeals arising out of the matter being investigated and/or prosecuted."

Mueller served for 12 years as director of the FBI under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Mueller also has the authority to prosecute if the investigation uncovers federal crimes. So he has the ability to investigate and potentially prosecute.

Earlier in May, Rosenstein had written a memo to Attorney General Jeff Sessions noting then-FBI director James Comey's lack of support within the FBI. Comey was subsequently fired by Trump.

As a reminder, the FBI is a division within the Department of Justice, which is led by Sessions, who has recused himself from this investigation. Mueller reports to Rosenstein.

The rule used to appoint Mueller became effective in 1999, and was used that year when Attorney General Janet Reno appointed John Danforth as special counsel to investigate the 1993 federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The rule has not been used since -- until now.

Mueller has hired additional attorneys to assist him; James Quarles, Jeannie Rhee, Andrew Weissmann, Aaron Zebley, and Michael Dreeben. Mueller, Quarles, Rhee and Zebley all left the law firm WilmerHale to join the investigation.

Three members of the team Quarles, Rhee and Weissmann have made political donations; Quarles has given $32,800 to Democratic candidates since 1988, but donated "$2,500 to Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz in 2015 and gave $250 to then-Sen. George Allen of Virginia in 2005," according to CNN's Marshall Cohen, who cited Federal Election Commission records. Rhee has donated $16,400 to Democratic candidates.

Quarles and Rhee "gave the maximum contribution of $2,700 to Clinton's campaign last year," he noted. Weissmann gave $2,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 2006, and $2,300 to Obama's campaign in 2008. Weissmann had been working at the law firm Jenner & Block since 2005; he returned to DOJ in 2011.

In addition to these donations, there are additional, potentially more concerning ties. Rhee represented "the Clinton Foundation in a racketeering lawsuit brought by a conservative advocacy group, and also represented Clinton herself in a lawsuit seeking access to her private emails," wrote Cohen.

Zebley represented Hillary Clinton aide Justin Cooper, who managed her private email server. Cooper remembered instances where he destroyed old mobile phones -- by breaking them in half or with a hammer.

The two non WilmerHale members were already with the DOJ. Weissmann was head of the DOJ Criminal Fraud Unit, and Micheal Dreeben was DOJ deputy solicitor general. Remember: Weissman donated to Obama and to the DNC while working for a private firm.

Zebley was an FBI agent before he became a prosecutor and was investigating international terrorist organizations before moving to WilmerHale to work on corporate matters, including representing Clinton's aide.

This team, with its Democratic political contributions and connections, has led some to questions its independence, and speculation that Trump might fire Mueller.

This Tuesday, during a Senate committee meeting, Rosenstein put his stake in the ground. "As long as I'm in this position, he's not going to be fired without good cause," said Rosenstein.

Rosenstein also promised that "Director Mueller is going to have the full independence he needs to conduct that investigation appropriately."

An independent investigation should be -- independent. The activities of team members so far appointed might give pause and concern. Many will be watching to see if the conclusions of the investigation are also fully independent.

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