The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Your cheat sheet for all the investigations into Russia and Trump

This post, originally published in March, has been updated with the latest news.

President Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey last week for, by his own admission, the fact that Comey was investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

Now Trump is facing a litany of investigations — most seriously, a special counsel appointed by the Justice Department who will have wide berth to investigate whether Russia meddled in the U.S. election and whether any Trump associates helped the foreign power. Justice’s announcement of an independent prosecutor comes a day after we learned Comey said Trump asked him to drop the FBI’s probe into Trump’s ally, former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Here’s your cheat sheet into all the investigations going on — and others that could be opened. We included pros and cons of each type of investigation, with our baseline being a fair and accurate one.

1. A special counsel on Russia

Is this type of investigation happening? Yes. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein announced Wednesday he has appointed Robert S. Mueller III, a former prosecutor who served as the FBI director from 2001 to 2013, to investigate potential possible coordination between Trump associates and Russian officials.

“In my capacity as acting attorney general I determined that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a special counsel to assume responsibility for this matter,” Rosenstein said in a statement. (He’s acting attorney general in this case because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself.)

Potential pros: A special counsel is the most independent investigator the government can have because the government is not doing the investigating. If Mueller’s team finds any wrongdoing, Mueller has the power to prosecute.

An NBC-WSJ poll found 73 percent of Americans want an independent investigation.

Potential cons: It can turn into a political spectacle in its own right — or uncover unexpected things. Kenneth Starr, a lawyer who was chosen to investigate President Bill Clinton’s real estate investments, wound up uncovering the president’s affair with a White House intern.

And Mueller will still answer to the Justice Department, says Josh Chafetz a law professor at Cornell.

As Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) told NPR recently: “There is no such thing as an independent investigation in Washington, D.C. Everyone has a bias one way or the other.”

Likelihood of this happening: Until the Justice Department announced it had appointed a special counsel, we didn’t think this would happen. Congressional Republicans weren’t calling for one in significant numbers, saying the congressional investigations would suffice. Apparently the lawyers in Trump’s Justice Department don’t agree.

2. The FBI investigation

Is the investigation happening? Well, it was. But now that Trump has fired its director, we’re not clear what will happen.

Potential pros: Lawyers, not Congress, are doing the investigating. And Sessions, the man who oversees the FBI (and would determine whether to prosecute should the FBI find wrongdoing), said he would recuse himself from any investigations related to Russia or Trump because he was a top Trump aide during the campaign.

Potential cons: We have no idea who Trump will pick to replace Comey. He could conceivably appoint someone more partisan than Democrats would like because his nominee only needs to pass a majority in the Senate, and Republicans have a slim majority.

3. Various congressional committees

Is this investigation happening? Yes — multiple investigations, actually. The House and Senate intelligence committees, which deal with some of the nation’s most well-kept secrets, are investigating Russia’s attempt to influence the U.S. presidential election and Trump associates’ connections to Russia.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees the federal government, is asking the FBI for Comey’s memos. So is the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Potential pros: There are half a dozen committees in Congress that can launch investigations, each from its own perspective.

Potential cons: Well, we’ve already seen how these kinds of investigations can go wrong. Congress is an inherently political body, which means its investigations are led by members with a political bent one way or the other.

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) learned the hard way that showing too much political intention can get you into trouble. He recently stepped down from his investigation into Russia and Trump after he briefed the president on some of it, potentially compromising his own investigation’s neutrality.

Another con: Any findings from Congress will probably be viewed very skeptically by Americans. A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll found that 61 percent of Americans have little to no confidence in Congress to be impartial when it comes to Russian meddling.

4. A special, Russia-only congressional committee

Is this investigation happening? No. But some members of Congress (mostly Democrats) stared to  scream out for this when Comey was fired.

Under this scenario, a group of about a dozen lawmakers would be assigned to only investigate — well, whatever it was set up to investigate.

Potential pros: This is usually more thorough, because unlike other committees in Congress, it has only one issue to focus on. It also can be perceived as less partisan than the regular committee process, especially if Congress agrees to put an even number of Republicans and Democrats on it.

Potential con: This type of investigation could take years to get started and even longer to complete. And it's not immune to partisanship. Democrats and Republicans investigating the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, couldn't even come to the same conclusion as to what actually happened when they released their final report in June.

Likelihood of this investigation happening: Until the special counsel appointment, we would have said slim. Most Republicans don’t seem to have any desire to set up a high-profile, time-consuming committee to investigate the issue. (Setting this up would require a vote in Congress.) But now, it’s unclear how this will change the calculus.

5. An independent commission on Russia

 Is this type of investigation happening? No. Congress could set up an independent commission, like it did after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to look at what went wrong. The commission cannot prosecute for crimes.

Potential pros: Like a special counsel, it’s independent and outside the confines of Congress.

Potential cons: This committee doesn’t have prosecutorial powers. Its job would be to basically write a report on what went wrong. And it’s not immune to drama: President George W. Bush’s pick to lead the 9/11 Commission, former secretary of state Henry A. Kissinger, had to resign when he realized he’d have to disclose his financial interests.

Likelihood of this investigation happening: Until the special counsel appointment, we would have said slim. But now, we don’t know.