Nearly two years after special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to investigate possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, he appears to be nearing the end of his work. We don’t know what new information we’ll gain from Mueller’s report, but here’s how his investigation currently stacks up to other special counsel investigations:
Charged but not convicted
A total of 170 people have been charged in special or independent counsel investigations since the Watergate probe began in 1973. Individuals who pleaded guilty or were convicted are highlighted in blue, and overturned convictions are outlined in blue. Those who were charged but not convicted are highlighted in pink.
Mueller’s investigation stands out for the number of indictments. Since October 2017, Mueller has charged 34 people. That’s more than in any special counsel investigation since Watergate, when 61 people were indicted during the course of the inquiry (with seven others who faced charges only before the special prosecutor was appointed).
Mueller’s probe is also more international in nature than the other inquiries. Only one other special counsel investigation charged anyone who wasn’t a resident of the United States, but in the Mueller probe, 26 of those indicted were Russians living outside the country. This means that even though the Russia investigation is one of the few to have produced any guilty pleas or convictions, many people Mueller has charged are unlikely to ever see the inside of a U.S. courtroom.
There’s also the speed and length of Mueller’s probe. The first charges issued by Mueller appeared earlier in the investigation than many past special counsels. His probe has also been relatively short-lived so far: The average length of an investigation that resulted in at least one charge or conviction was about five years; Mueller’s investigation has lasted less than two years.
The Mueller investigation is also unusual because of how close it’s come to President Trump. The most famous comparison is Watergate, in which President Richard Nixon and his administration were investigated after a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. As with the Mueller probe, the question of whether the president interfered with an election was central to the investigation — as well as whether the president illegally orchestrated a cover-up.
Watergate decisively ended Nixon’s presidency and put some of his closest aides behind bars — and a whopping 21 of those indicted worked in Nixon’s administration at some point. On the other hand, Mueller’s investigation has implicated only a few people who worked in and around Trump’s campaign. Only one — Michael Flynn — actually worked in the administration. This means that unless Mueller has some late-breaking blockbuster findings, the Russia investigation won’t be another Watergate.
So maybe a more apt comparison is the Whitewater investigation. In that case, President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton were investigated over activity related to a failed Arkansas land deal.
As in the Mueller investigation, those implicated in Whitewater were also largely associates of the president from before he was elected. But the key difference here is that Clinton’s connections to most of these people were more than a decade old, while Trump’s are more recent. Independent counsel Ken Starr also took more than five years and was far less focused than Mueller. He eventually turned his investigation to Clinton’s attempt to cover up an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Starr lost credibility in the process, but that phase of the investigation did lead to Clinton’s impeachment. While Clinton had to negotiate a plea deal, the investigation didn’t cost him the presidency.
Another investigation that’s similar to the Russia probe — this one because of its international scope — was the Iran-Contra scandal. In that case, the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran (despite an arms embargo) in exchange for the release of seven hostages and $30 million, some of which was diverted to rebels in Nicaragua. As in the Mueller investigation, one central question was whether the president and his close associates were involved.
The Iran-Contra investigation weakened Reagan but didn’t end his presidency, and he was never indicted as part of the scandal. The convictions of two administration officials were overturned over the immunity they had been granted to testify before Congress. And Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, effectively ended the investigation by pardoning six key figures — including the former secretary of defense.
Even when Mueller’s probe has ended, a key question will remain: Will the president pardon anyone implicated in the Russia investigation? He can pardon anyone implicated in the Russia investigation — except, perhaps, himself. Almost every major special counsel investigation has resulted in pardons — some even many years after the investigation wrapped up. So it would actually be out of the ordinary if no one convicted in the Russia investigation is ever pardoned. But Trump could open himself up to obstruction of justice charges if he issues pardons for people before Mueller’s work is over. Pardons usually come at the end of an investigation, and they’re usually issued at the end of a president’s term or by a subsequent president, perhaps because they are so unpopular.
Once Mueller has closed the book on his investigation, Trump’s real liability will be political — issuing a pardon before 2020 could be a risky move. But regardless of how the Russia investigation turns out, it’s important to remember that Trump still has one last card to play.