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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The DOJ appointed a special counsel Wednesday evening in the Trump-Russia probe. A look at how that role was created, and how it differs from what happened during Watergate:

Special Prosecutor

Richard Nixon appointed the first U.S. special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, in 1973 to investigate Watergate.

  • But there wasn't any law governing that appointment and his subsequent jurisdiction and powers.
  • So when Cox pressed Nixon over WH tapes, Nixon fired him, and pushed back against his replacement, arguing they didn't have that power.
Independent Counsel or Special Investigators

Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act (EGA) in 1977 to create a federal process for appointing special investigators.

  • The AG would run a preliminary investigation and if further probing was necessary, the AG would petition against a three judge panel to appoint an independent counsel.
  • Congress could also compel the AG to start that investigation.
  • The Special Investigator could prosecute federal crimes related to the investigation or interference into it, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses.
  • The Special Investigator could be removed for "good cause" by the AG or by Congress.
  • The law was not renewed in 1999.
Special Counsel — Current Law

Current law on Special Counsel (SC) is governed by the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), Chapter 6, which has been the way to appoint a special counsel ever since 1999. The law gives the AG much more authority over the whether to appoint an SC, and over the investigation.

  • When to appoint an SC: If pursuing a matter would be a conflict of interest for the DOJ or if public interest would be served by removing responsibility from the DOJ.
  • Congress can request an SC be appointed.
  • The law puts the SC on par with any U.S. Attorney. The SC could get his or her jurisdiction expanded if necessary.
  • The SC can prosecute federal crimes committed, as well as interference into the investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses.
  • Although the SC is not subject to day-to-day supervision in the DOJ, but may have to provide explanation of investigative steps if the head of the DOJ requests it.
  • The SC can be removed by the AG for "misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or for other good cause, including violation of Departmental policies."

Go deeper

Updated 4 hours ago - World

Biden in call with Netanyahu raises concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza

Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images

President Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Saturday and raised concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza and the bombing of the building that housed AP and other media offices, according to Israeli officials.

The big picture: At least 140 Palestinians, including dozens of children, have been killed in Gaza since fighting between Israel and Hamas began Monday, according to Palestinian health officials. Nine people, including two children, have been killed by Hamas rockets in Israel.

Updated 5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

"Horrified": AP, Al Jazeera condemn Israel's bombing of their offices in Gaza

A ball of fire erupts from the Jalaa Tower as it is destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza. Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Associated Press and Al Jazeera on Saturday condemned the Israeli airstrike that destroyed a high-rise building in Gaza that housed their and other media offices.

What they're saying: The White House, meanwhile, said it had "communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility," according to press secretary Jen Psaki.

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
6 hours ago - Health

The COVID lab-leak theory goes mainstream

The Wuhan Institute of Virology. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images The COVID lab-leak theory goes mainstream

A group of high-profile scientists published a letter calling for renewed investigation into the origins of COVID-19 — including the theory that it spilled out of a virology lab.

Why it matters: The possibility that SARS-CoV-2 was created in a Chinese lab and accidentally escaped — rather than emerging naturally from an animal — was initially dismissed as a conspiracy theory. But the letter shows a potential lab leak is increasingly being taken seriously.