RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Robert Mueller has made no public comments since he was named to lead the investigation into Russian interference in last year's election. Instead, he has quietly hired a team of elite Justice Department prosecutors. Those hires got the attention of a California group that backs President Trump, and that group put together this ad.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "WITCH HUNT")
TOMI LAHREN: Then who does Mueller select to help lead the independent investigation? Four top lawyers, all major donors to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic national party.
MARTIN: NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is with us now. So Carrie, is that true that all these hires donated to Democrats?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Well, Robert Mueller has hired a number of lawyers. It is true that some of them have donated to Democrats. At least one has donated to Republicans, too. But Rachel, an important point of context here - even key Republican figures on Capitol Hill, like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have said he does not believe political donations pose a conflict of interest. And in any event, Justice Department policies prohibit lawyers from looking at the donation history when they make hiring decisions.
MARTIN: But clearly - I mean, President Trump himself has called this investigation a witch hunt, some of his supporters obviously seizing on this idea that the investigation is partisan. Is Robert Mueller pushing back on this in any way?
JOHNSON: He's going to let his actions do the talking. Robert Mueller, former FBI director whose reputation is well-known in Washington and beyond, does not like to talk to the reporters. And he does not intend, I don't think, to mount any kind of counterstrategy. Instead, he's going to let the work that his team does speak for itself.
MARTIN: All right, let's talk about the work. What's he been doing so far? What do we know?
JOHNSON: Well, he's hired 15 lawyers so far, Rachel, people with an expertise in criminal law, fraud investigators, national security experts and people who know how to do appeals, which means in this case, possibly preserving any convictions as prosecutors win. Several of these lawyers are well-known for their ability to move up the ladder, get lower-level witnesses to cooperate and build cases, bigger cases, against higher-ups.
And several are also known for being tough, applying strategies the Justice Department has used to break up mob families in Brooklyn to white-collar criminals and national security cases. I'm also told a lot more hiring is in the works.
MARTIN: So hiring has happened. And you say it's going to continue. But has the investigation begun in earnest? I mean, have people been called in to testify? Are they - what kinds of questions are they asking?
JOHNSON: Here's what we know. This investigation, in many ways, is a black box. We're finding out a lot about it from members of Congress and witnesses who have interactions with the investigators rather than the special counsel team itself. We know that the special counsel has met with key committees on Capitol Hill to coordinate efforts, make sure they're not stepping on each other's toes.
We know there have been a lot of demands for information. And we know they're investigating Russian interference in the election - possible Russian interference in the election and possible ties between Russians and people in the Trump campaign, what the president has called satellites as well as top figures, people like the campaign chairman Paul Manafort...
JOHNSON: ...National security adviser Michael Flynn and many other figures. This investigation is in the early stages, though.
MARTIN: And they are investigating the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Is that right?
JOHNSON: From what we can tell, Robert Mueller has the memos that James Comey wrote memorializing his conversations with President Trump. And Comey has said he thinks that is part of the special counsel's ongoing investigation.
MARTIN: This is an investigation that could last months, if not years. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson - thanks so much, Carrie.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF KAKI KING'S "OOBLECK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.