The legal underpinnings of the position — along with the name — have evolved over the years, but the basic framework has remained consistent: a highly skilled lawyer who could serve as a neutral party in conducting an inquiry so politically charged that the professionals in the Justice Department could not do it without at least a perception of bias from some quarters.
Many of the names are well known and part of Washington lore. Archibald Cox, fired by President Richard M. Nixon during Watergate. Lawrence E. Walsh, the Iran-contra investigator whose $37 million inquiry lasted seven years and got entangled with a congressional investigation. Kenneth W. Starr, the Clinton antagonist in the Whitewater investigation that evolved into the Lewinsky investigation and ended with President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Less famed today are others such as John B. Henderson, appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1875 to investigate the theft of whiskey taxes by federal officials but fired when he got too close to the president’s personal secretary.
Presidents from both parties have been caught up in the work of special prosecutors, ending up frustrated with outcomes they deemed unfair or well outside the original scope of the job.
In the current case, congressional Republicans were strongly opposed to naming a special counsel, saying none was warranted. But Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein took that decision out of their hands on Wednesday with his appointment of Mr. Mueller, considered a rare model of Washington rectitude.
Mr. Rosenstein took pains in his announcement to emphasize that his appointment of…