There are signs that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is wrapping up his Russia investigation, and will soon file his report to the Justice Department. Here’s what we know and don’t know about the investigation that has Washington holding its breath.
Let’s get right to it. When is this report coming?
Those who know won’t say! In late January, the acting attorney general announced that Mueller was completing his work, and news organizations soon ran headlines saying his final report appeared imminent. It wasn’t. Mueller’s investigation has always been shrouded in mystery, and predictions about what he would do next have rarely proved accurate. Still, there are clear signals that his investigation is wrapping up. Some members of his team have already left for other positions at the Justice Department, and his top prosecutor, Andrew Weissmann, is preparing to return to the New York University School of Law.
What will the report say?
Under the special counsel regulations, Mueller must provide the attorney general with “a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached,” meaning why he decided to charge or not charge people who were under investigation. Although the content of Mueller’s report is unknown, it’s safe to say that it will provide a dramatic coda to his nearly two years as special counsel. Starting in May 2017, he has investigated Russian efforts to sway the 2016 presidential election, any connections between President Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin operation, and whether the president subsequently obstructed justice by interfering in the investigation. Along the way, Mueller’s team has found and prosecuted numerous crimes.
Why does Mueller file the report with the Justice Department?
As special counsel, Mueller isn’t fully independent. He is supervised by Justice Department leadership, which is currently Atty. Gen. William Barr and Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein, both of whom were appointed by Trump. Barr was recently confirmed to succeed Jeff Sessions, who was forced out in November, and Rosenstein has held his position since April 2017. Because Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel after Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director.
So when does Mueller’s report become public?
This is where things get complicated. Once the special counsel is finished, the attorney general must notify the leaders of the House and Senate judiciary committees. Barr is also required to tell them of any situation where he overruled the special counsel, such as whether or not to pursue a particular subpoena. But Barr does not need to publicly release Mueller’s report, even though he has the authority to “determine that public release of these reports would be in the public interest.” During his confirmation hearing, he pledged to be as transparent as the law allows — but did not commit to releasing the whole thing.
What does Congress get to see?
It’s likely that Barr eventually will provide Congress with a summary of Mueller’s report. He hasn’t said how quickly he would do that or how much detail he would share. Evidence reviewed by a federal grand jury is generally kept secret unless it is used in an indictment. Other information could remain classified since Mueller’s investigation has delved into sensitive counterintelligence sources and methods.
How complicated could this get?
Very! House Democrats could use their subpoena power to demand Mueller’s full report. The White House could also claim that executive privilege allows them to keep parts of Mueller’s work under wraps. Both of these steps would likely spark drawn-out legal battles.
Will Mueller explain his work?
Who knows? Except for a brief comment when he accepted the appointment as special counsel, the former FBI director has been all but invisible. He has given no interviews or speeches (except a long-promised graduation speech to his granddaughter’s high school in Massachusetts), and he has stayed off TV shows and Twitter. His relentless silence has only added to the mystery that surrounds his work. However, House Democrats may try to bring Mueller to Capitol Hill to testify publicly.
Will this be like the Starr report?
Kenneth W. Starr operated under a different statute as the independent counsel investigating President Clinton. He was supervised by a panel of judges, not the Justice Department, and in September 1998, after a four-year investigation, Starr gave Congress a 445-page report that included graphic details of Clinton’s affair with a White House intern. The House quickly voted to release the report to the public. The independent counsel law expired near the end of Clinton’s term and new rules were drafted for future investigations.