Here’s what we know about the cost of the Mueller investigation

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller was named special counsel by the U.S. Department of Justice to lead the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. (Tampa Bay Times file)
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller was named special counsel by the U.S. Department of Justice to lead the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. (Tampa Bay Times file)

Special Counsel Robert Mueller ended his investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election without accusing President Donald Trump or his campaign of conspiring or coordinating with the Russian government.

Given the favorable outcome, Republicans renewed their attention on the cost of the investigation, which stretched on for nearly two years.

"The total reported cost of the Special Counsel’s investigation through September 2018 was $25,215,853.00," said a March 24 tweet from the Republican National Committee. "The Mueller investigation will go down in history as one of the widest ranging and most expensive Special Counsel investigations ever."

Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, in a March 25 Fox News interview, claimed that the investigation "cost actually about $40 million."

What are the facts on the cost of the Mueller investigation? Here’s what we know, though there’s more data to come.

Here’s how much has been spent

The total cost of the investigation is not publicly known at this point.

Mueller’s office so far has released three expenditures statements. Direct and indirect costs totaled $25.2 million through Sept. 30, 2018.

Mueller hired 19 lawyers, who were assisted by about 40 FBI agents, intelligence analysts, forensic accountants, and other professional staff, according to Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report.

The Special Counsel’s office told PolitiFact that a statement on expenditures from Oct. 1, 2018, through the end of the investigation will eventually be made public. Given previous reporting patterns, that last statement might not come until late May.

On average, the office spent about $8.4 million per reporting period, which covered about six months. If the final statement tracks with that, total spending from the investigation would reach about $34 million.

So where’d the money come from?

The investigation was funded by a permanent, indefinite appropriation for independent counsels. Indirect expenses included salaries of Justice Department employees assisting Mueller’s team. Mueller’s office has said that indirect expenses aren’t really a use of additional tax dollars, since the personnel and resources would have been devoted to other cases if there had been no special counsel investigation. Indirect costs are "neither legally required" for disclosure nor reported in filings by previous special counsels, according to the office.

The RNC claimed that the Mueller investigation would "go down in history as one of the widest ranging and most expensive Special Counsel investigations ever."

Total direct costs of other investigations from the Bill Clinton era have exceeded Mueller’s known spending — and that’s before adjusting for inflation.

For instance, investigations of Clinton over Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky, headed mainly by Kenneth Starr and his successor Robert Ray, cost around $70 million over about eight years.

Do asset forfeitures basically pay for the probe?

On social media, complaints about Mueller’s spending are sometimes met with a retort that the investigation paid for itself given related asset forfeitures.

We wondered if that were true and found there isn’t a direct link.

The financial penalties leveled against Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign chairman, stand out among nearly three-dozen indictments stemming from the probe. (Manafort’s convictions, for bank and tax fraud and other charges, were not connected to Manafort’s work on Trump’s campaign.)

As part of a plea agreement, Manafort forfeited to the government his real estate property in New York, funds in three bank accounts, and his life insurance policy. Court documents do not specify the estimated value of each asset. (Some news outlets reported that the combined value of the real estate properties could be an estimated $22 million.)

That’s getting close to Mueller’s spending, but proceeds from forfeited assets would not directly pay the bills of the investigation. The money goes toward the Justice Department’s Assets Forfeiture Fund. The attorney general can use that fund to pay for "any necessary expenses associated with forfeiture operations such as property seizure, detention, management, forfeiture, and disposal."

The fund can also be used to pay for "certain general investigative expenses," according to the Justice Department’s website, including federal law enforcement operations with state and local officers.

Having recovered money flow into a general fund is a best practice, said Nora V. Demleitner, a law professor at Washington and Lee University. That way, prosecutors aren’t motivated to go after the richest targets and set others aside.

"One of the criticisms against forfeiture is the fact that sometimes law enforcement agencies have a direct financial stake in the outcome," Demleitner said. "That can impact prosecutorial priorities."