Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections, has submitted his final report to the attorney general William Barr.
Mueller was appointed by the deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein in May 2017 to investigate any “links and/or coordination between” the Russian government and individuals on the Trump campaign, as well as “matters that arose or may arise indirectly from the investigation” – such as whether the president attempted to obstruct justice by firing the FBI head James Comey and the attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
Sounds important, when do we get to read the report?
Here’s the catch: possibly never.
It’s up to Barr to decide how much of Mueller’s report will be made available to the public.
Last June, prior to his appointment, Barr wrote a memo in which he described Mueller’s obstruction of justice investigation as “fatally misconceived”. Despite these misgivings, during his confirmation hearing Barr said he’d make a summary of the report public – but we just don’t know how detailed that summary will be.
Earlier this month Congress passed a bipartisan resolution calling for the full report to be made public, with the exception of anything that would be illegal to disclose. The resolution isn’t legally binding, but it places political pressure on Barr. According to a CNN poll, almost nine in ten Americans also want a full, public report.
One consideration that may limit how much information Barr chooses to make public is the principle that the Department of Justice should not release unfavourable information about an individual unless they are charging them with a crime.
This could benefit Trump in two different ways: first, if Mueller does not find the president guilty of any crime, Barr may choose to withhold any other unsavoury information discovered about the president.
Secondly, as the Washington Post points out, if Barr accepts the principle that the Department of Justice cannot indict a sitting president, he could try to use that as a reason for withholding information relating to Trump even if the president is implicated in a crime.
The newspaper adds that it’s unlikely Barr wouldn’t have to say something to Congress if Mueller believes that Trump committed a crime, but this does all show how much wriggle-room the attorney general has.
It’s also worth noting that Mueller’s report may not be a colourful document filled with salacious detail, in the manner of the Starr Report. It could be a very brief, dry explanation of who his team decided to prosecute and why.
What does Trump make of all this?
Trump has recently said that he wants the report, which he usually dismisses as a “witch hunt”, to be made public. But there’s no reason to take him at his word.
Another stumbling block for anyone who wants to see the full report is that the White House may be allowed to see Barr’s summary, and Trump’s lawyers may seek to redact any information that is damaging to the president due to “executive privilege”.
So is the publication of the Mueller report going to be the biggest non-story of the year?
That really depends on what it says.
We know from Mueller’s court filings that he has already been examining extensive links between Trump administration officials and Russia, including:
- Negotiations between the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen and Russian officials over the building of a Trump tower in Moscow, which continued well into Trump’s campaign.
- The infamous “Trump tower” meeting of June, in which senior Trump campaign officials, including Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, met with a Russian lawyer and four other people with Russian ties after being promised “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
- The extent to which Trump associates such as Roger Stone and George Papadoulos were privy to information regarding Russia’s hacking of Democrats’ emails and the release of those emails via Wikileaks.
- Paul Manafort’s sharing of campaign polling data with a Russian contact and the Trump campaign manager’s other contacts with Russian officials.
The Special Counsel is also known to be pursuing several lines of inquiry to determine whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice, including:
- The circumstances surrounding the firing of Comey and Sessions
- Whether Trump instructed campaign officials to lie on his behalf – including whether he instructed Cohen to lie to Congress about the duration of the Moscow Tower project, or Don Jr. to lie to the public about the Trump tower meeting.
- Whether Trump attempted to offer the promise of a pardon to Manafort and his former national security chief Michael Flynn in order to influence their testimonies.
If Trump is directly implicated in criminal activity, whether that’s related to collusion with Russia or obstruction of justice, the Mueller report could be politically explosive, by provoking Congress to begin impeachment proceedings.
When Buzzfeed published a report alleging that Trump had personally directed Cohen to lie to Congress about the Moscow tower, several senior Democrats said they considered this ground for impeachment. Mueller’s team later issued a rare public statement disputing Buzzfeed’s claims, shutting down the impeachment conversation, but the episode gives a clear indication of the Democratic mood.
What if Trump is not implicated in any criminal activity?
As mentioned above, it’s unlikely the public would learn much new about Trump from the Mueller report if he isn’t directly implicated in criminal conduct.
The report is unlikely to completely exonerate the president, however. Six members of Trump’s circle have already been charged as a result of the Mueller investigation, in court filings that reveal a pattern of criminality and questionable Russian links at the highest levels of the Trump campaign.
But a report that does little to advance the idea that Trump colluded with Russia or sought to obstruct justice could hinder the political will behind Congressional investigations into Trump’s Russia links.
The Republicans would certainly use it as an excuse to dismiss the whole inquiry as a political witch hunt and a waste of time. Given that Mueller has exposed a concerted effort by the Russians to influence the election and has already charged over 30 people, this is hardly true. There may still be more bombshell indictments of Trump’s team to come.
Trump is also under legal pressure because of a number of other investigations not related to Mueller’s Russia inquiry.
In New York prosecutors are investigating possible misconduct by the president’s inaugural committee and an alleged “shocking pattern of illegality” involving the Trump’s charitable foundation, among other things. In D.C. and Maryland prosecutors are looking into whether Trump has broken laws about accepting money from foreign governments while in office.
What if we already know all there is to know?
An interesting argument that has been circulating is that the public should be less focused on Mueller’s final report and should instead look at what the Special Counsel has already made public, through court documents relating to the trials of top Trump aides such as Cohen, Manafort and Stone.
As David A. Graham argues in The Atlantic:
Following the path of former President Richard Nixon’s downfall, there’s been a search for a smoking gun on par with his fateful White House tapes. But as I have written, there’s been an arsenal of smoking guns sitting out in the open for years now. Or put differently, if this is a witch hunt, investigators have already found a coven…[Mueller’s indictments, and Trump’s public comments, including his attempts to undermine the Russia investigation] paint a vivid and consistent portrait of a president who is chronically dishonest, does not respect the rule of law, is frantic to avoid being investigated, hires people without strong ethical bearings, and placed himself in a position to be compromised by Russia during the campaign. (This doesn’t even get into the chaos and mismanagement of his presidency, the many scandals of his Cabinet members, his boasting about sexual assault, his encouragement of attacks on the press, and any number of other offenses.)
We don’t know yet whether Trump’s efforts to undermine the Russia investigation can legally be considered obstruction of justice, and while it seems clear that members of his team tried to collude with Russia, we don’t know how involved the president was in these efforts.
These two details matter a great deal when it comes to prospects for impeaching the president, or perhaps for indicting him after he leaves office, but after wading through the court documents released so far (there’s a great summary here), one might be left wondering: how much more do we need to know to make up our minds about Trump and Russia?