What We Will and Won’t Learn From Mueller’s Report

I’m seeing some skepticism about this recent report from CNN:

Attorney General Bill Barr is preparing to announce as early as next week the completion of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, with plans for Barr to submit to Congress soon after a summary of Mueller’s confidential report, according to people familiar with the plans.

The preparations are the clearest indication yet that Mueller is nearly done with his almost two-year investigation.

For example, perhaps keying off of that first line, Josh Marshall notes that this news comes just six days after Trump’s new Attorney General was sworn into office. His headline simply states, “Sounds Totally Legit!” Marshall clarified a bit on Twitter by writing, “What doesn’t add up to me is that there appear to be a number of parts of this probe still in progress.”

But if true, the timing would corroborate what NBC News reported back in January about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s resignation coming simultaneously with Mueller’s completion of the investigation. This news from CNN also sent me back to something Rep. Adam Schiff said last Sunday.

“You can see evidence in plain sight on the issue of collusion, pretty compelling evidence,” Schiff said, adding, “There is a difference between seeing evidence of collusion and being able to prove a criminal conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Schiff said special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on potential Russian government meddling in the 2016 election might not be the final word on the matter.

“We may also need to see the evidence behind that report,” he said.

It’s almost as if he knew the report would be completed soon and was prepping us for what comes next.

It is important to know what to expect once Mueller’s report is completed. Just last week, Ken Dilanian warned that we might be disappointed with what we learn about the report. That’s because Robert Mueller is working under legislation authorizing a “special counsel,” which is different from Ken Starr’s role as an “independent counsel.”

Starr operated under the now-defunct independent counsel law, meaning he called many of his own shots, outside the purview of the Justice Department. Mueller is a special counsel under Justice Department supervision, subject to very specific regulations.

Here is the sum total of what the rules say about a final report:

“At the conclusion of the Special Counsel’s work, he or she shall provide the Attorney General with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel.”

The attorney general is then required to send a report to Congress, which the legislation says must be “brief notifications, with an outline of the actions and the reasons for them.” There is, however, a wildcard:

…if the Mueller report contains allegations of potentially impeachable offenses against the president, scholars have said the Justice Department would have to pass the full details of that to Congress.

Given the wide berth of opinion about what constitutes an “impeachable offense,” that assumption is wide open to interpretation.

During his confirmation hearings, Bill Barr gave himself a lot of wiggle room on what he will report to Congress.

It is important to note that Attorney General Barr’s report will initially go to the Judiciary Committees in the House and Senate. That means that the first people to get a crack at it will be Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Sen. Lindsey Graham, the men who chair their respective committees. While Graham has shown himself to be one of the president’s chief congressional enablers, the fact that Nadler will counterbalance things in the House is yet another example of why elections matter.

One final note: as Marshall indicated, a lot of people assumed that Mueller’s probe wasn’t near completion because there is still a lot of territory to be covered. But the truth is, we don’t know much about what Mueller has or has not covered. While Washington isn’t known as a town that keeps secrets, the special prosecutor has run an incredibly tight ship.

On the other hand, Mueller’s critics have often characterized his investigation as a “fishing expedition,” or as Trump calls it, “a witch hunt.” But from everything we’ve seen so far, the Special Counsel has stuck to his mandate very closely. He was given rather large parameters, but has adhered to Rosenstein’s charge to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.”

Whether it is investigations into ties with other governments, money laundering, tax evasion, illegal activities on the part of Trump Foundation and his inaugural committee, violation of the emoluments clause or other crimes, those will be left up to federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, the New York Attorney General’s office, and Congress.

Even so, it is important to keep in mind that whatever Attorney General Barr reports to Congress about Mueller’s investigation will simply be the opening salvo. If he hedges, Democrats will apply tremendous pressure to see what evidence the Special Counsel has uncovered. There are also reams of court documents that were redacted simply to protect the investigation and could therefore be released once it is completed. So buckle up for a long, bumpy ride.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.