“… the World’s most expensive Witch Hunt has found nothing on Russia & me so now they are looking at the rest of the World!”
— Trump, in a tweet, May 20, 2018
Trump has seized on the cost of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, tweeting that the government has spent “over $17 million” or “soon to be” $20 million.
But those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Although Trump called it “the World’s most expensive Witch Hunt” on Twitter, the Mueller team’s spending rate so far is in line with historical trends, if not below them. For instance, the independent counsel investigation into President Bill Clinton spent $7.9 million in one six-month period in 1999, adjusting for inflation. Mueller’s team reported $4.5 million in direct expenses for the six months from October 2017 through March 2018.
Furthermore, one interesting aspect of Mueller’s investigation is that he’s breaking with precedent in his expense statements. Mueller chooses to report what other units of the Justice Department have spent to support his investigation, something no other special counsel or independent counsel had done before. Most news organizations report the total cost, not just Mueller’s direct expenses.
So when Trump tweets that the cost is “over $17 million, and going up fast,” citing an Associated Press report, it’s important to keep in mind that this number can be inflated or deflated in several ways and that Trump is using the absolute maximum. Let’s break it down.
Mueller was appointed special counsel on May 17, 2017, and has been investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential collusion with Trump’s campaign. The special counsel’s office has issued two spending reports: The first covers a period of nearly five months from May 17, 2017, through September 2017. The second covers the six months from October 2017 through March 2018.
Adding up both reports, the Mueller team had $7.7 million in direct expenses such as salaries and benefits for employees, travel costs, office rent, utilities and other items. Separately, Justice Department components assisting Mueller’s investigation reported another $9 million in costs. The total rounds out to $16.7 million, roughly the same as the “over $17 million” or “soon to be” $20 million in Trump’s tweets.
But there are some important caveats in Mueller’s reports. Let’s focus first on the direct costs, meaning the $7.7 million Mueller’s office spent by itself from May 17, 2017, to the end of March 2018.
Many of the employees who were paid from this pot of money already worked in the Justice Department and were detailed to Mueller’s team. Had Mueller not been appointed, these employees would still be paid; they just would have had other assignments.
Salary and benefit costs add up to $4.4 million: $1.37 million for Mueller’s hires and $3 million for “DOJ employees detailed to the SCO [special counsel’s office].” Another $738,950 was spent on “temporary duty relocation of DOJ employees detailed to the SCO.”
Mueller’s team is careful to note that $788,566 has been spent to acquire equipment that “will remain the property of the federal government at the conclusion of the investigation.”
At $7.7 million in direct costs for the first 11 months, Mueller’s investigation seems to be at or below the spending rate for previous special prosecutors. Independent counsels investigating Clinton and his administration spent $110.4 million over several years, according to a Washington Post report from 2001, published before some of those investigations had concluded.
At that point, an independent counsel investigation into the Whitewater dispute, the Monica Lewinsky scandal and other Clinton issues had cost $59.9 million. The probe was led at first by Kenneth Starr and then passed on to Robert W. Ray. The $59.9 million total was the highest ever, in raw dollars, after the $47.4 million spent by Lawrence E. Walsh in the 1980s Iran-contra inquiry. (Adjusting for inflation, the Iran-contra probe was probably more costly.)
During the six-month period ended September 1999, the Starr/Ray investigation spent $5.3 million, or $7.9 million after adjusting for inflation. That’s higher than the $4.5 million Mueller spent in the six months from October 2017 to the end of March 2018.
But other investigations were less costly. Mueller spent more from October to March than independent counsel David M. Barrett did in a six-month period in 1999 investigating former housing secretary Henry Cisneros’s sworn statements to the FBI about payments to his ex-mistress. Barrett spent $1.6 million for the six months ended September 1999, or $2.4 million after adjusting for inflation.
The point is that Mueller does not seem to be outside the norm when you compare his $7.7 million in direct spending to previous reports by his predecessors.
All of this money is paid from a permanent, indefinite appropriation for special counsels. Unlike every previous special counsel, Mueller chooses to report what other units of the Justice Department have spent to assist his investigation. That adds another $9 million to the $7.7 million total he incurred in direct expenses.
But there are almost no details about this supplementary DOJ spending, which is not paid for by the permanent, indefinite appropriation for special counsels.
In a 2004 report, the Government Accountability Office said that in the past these costs included FBI detailees:
“During any 6-month reporting period, there may be other significant costs incurred in support of the work of the counsels. These costs are paid from appropriations other than the permanent, indefinite appropriation established to fund independent counsel activities. These costs arise when a counsel uses detailees from other federal agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Independent counsels are not required to reflect such costs in their statements of expenditures and neither the independent counsels nor special counsel does so.”
Mueller began to do this, however.
“Although neither legally required nor reported in prior Special Counsels’ Statements of Expenditures, DOJ components that support the SCO were asked to track expenditures attributable to the investigations,” Mueller’s reports say. This $9 million figure “approximates expenditures the components would have incurred for the investigations irrespective of the existence of the SCO.”
That last line is key, since it suggests that that the $9 milion would have been spent “irrespective of the existence of the SCO.”
We asked a spokesman for the special counsel’s office how to interpret this language. The FBI and Justice Department already had begun to investigate Russia’s election interference before Mueller was appointed, so does this $9 million figure approximate their costs if they had continued down that path without Mueller and his team?
“As guidance, yes, it reflects what components would have incurred for the investigations irrespective of the existence of the SCO,” said Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel’s office. “That said, it’s unknowable what the exact amount would have been if a Special Counsel had not been selected, and that amount does not include the salaries of any DOJ employees — prosecutors, paralegals, support staff, etc. — which are now being paid through the permanent, indefinite appropriation but would also have incurred in some way.”
Responding to our questions about these caveats in Mueller’s expense statements, a White House official pointed to the AP’s reporting of $17 million in costs. “They were technically paid for their work on the investigation,” the official said. “That’s why it was reflected in the report. Some were reassigned from different departments and taken away from other important duties to work on this investigation.”
The Pinocchio Test
Trump accurately says the costs of Mueller’s investigation are $17 million and approximating $20 million. But he’s also implying these costs are exorbitant, when in fact previous independent counsels spent far more investigating Clinton.
It’s also important to note that many of these salary and benefit costs would be paid anyway, since much of Mueller’s team consists of employees who already worked for the federal government and were detailed to the special counsel’s investigation. Last, it’s worth keeping in mind that Mueller is adding $9 million in a category of indirect costs that no other special counsel reported previously.
For exaggerating and glossing over important nuances, we award Two Pinocchios to the president.
Update (Dec. 14, 2018): Mueller on Dec. 14 released the third report on his office’s expenses, covering April through September of 2018. The report details $4.6 million in direct costs from his investigation and $3.9 million in indirect costs. Adding it all up, the total cost through September rose to $25.2 million.
Since we first published this fact-check, there have been other significant developments on Mueller’s ledger. Namely, the special counsel’s office has become a moneymaker as much as a money-loser because Mueller through asset forfeiture has seized properties and funds from Paul Manafort. Independent journalist Marcy Wheeler has estimated the value of Manafort’s seized assets at $46 million, or nearly twice the cost of Mueller’s investigation so far.
Update (Jan. 10, 2020): The final cost of Mueller’s investigation was $32 million. According to CNN, Manafort “will forfeit $11 million to the government. He also must pay $6 million restitution to the IRS, according to his sentences.”
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