Written by Sharon LaFraniere and Katie Benner
Special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday delivered a report on his inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election to Attorney General William Barr, the Justice Department said, bringing to a close an investigation that has consumed the nation and cast a shadow over President Donald Trump for nearly two years.
Barr told congressional leaders in a letter that he may brief them on the special counsel’s “principal conclusions” as early as this weekend, a surprisingly fast turnaround for a report anticipated for months. The attorney general said he “remained committed to as much transparency as possible.”
In an apparent endorsement of an investigation that Trump has relentlessly attacked as a “witch hunt,” Barr said Justice Department officials never had to intervene to keep him from taking an inappropriate or unwarranted step. The department’s regulations would have required Barr to inform the leaders of the House and Senate Judiciary committees about any such interventions in his letter.
A senior Justice Department official said Mueller would not recommend new indictments, a statement aimed at ending speculation that Trump or other key figures might be charged down the line. With department officials stressing that Mueller’s inquiry was over and his office closing, the question for both Trump’s critics and defenders was whether the prosecutors condemned the president’s behavior in their report, exonerated him — or neither. The president’s lawyers were already girding for a possible fight over whether they could assert executive privilege to keep parts of the report secret.
Since Mueller’s appointment in May 2017, his team has focused on how Russian operatives sought to sway the outcome of the 2016 presidential race and whether anyone tied to the Trump campaign, wittingly or unwittingly, cooperated with them. While the inquiry, started months earlier by the FBI, unearthed a far-ranging Russian influence operation, no public evidence emerged that the president or his aides illegally assisted it.
Nonetheless, the damage to Trump and those in his circle has been extensive. A half-dozen former Trump aides were indicted or convicted of crimes, mostly for lying to federal investigators or Congress. Others remain under investigation in cases that Mueller’s office handed off to federal prosecutors in New York and elsewhere. Dozens of Russian intelligence officers or citizens, along with three Russian companies, were charged in cases that are likely to languish in court because the defendants cannot be extradited to the United States.
Republicans immediately seized upon the news that no more indictments are expected as a vindication of Trump and his campaign. Those reports “confirm what we’ve known all along: There was never any collusion with Russia,” Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the second-highest-ranking House Republican, said in a statement.
Democrats, including some of those hoping to supplant Trump in the White House in the 2020 election, insisted that Mueller’s full report be made public, including the underlying evidence. In a joint statement, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the top Senate Democrat, warned Barr not to allow the White House a “sneak preview” of the document.
“The White House must not be allowed to interfere in decisions about what parts of those findings or evidence are made public,” they said.
Not since Watergate has a special prosecutor’s inquiry so mesmerized the American public. Polls have shown that most Americans want to know its findings, and the House unanimously passed a nonbinding resolution to publicize the report.
Barr’s letter said he would decide what to release after consulting with Mueller and Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who has overseen his investigation. Justice Department officials emphasized that the White House had been kept at a distance.
Only a handful of law enforcement officials have seen the report, said Kerri Kupec, a department spokeswoman.
Although a White House lawyer was notified that Mueller had delivered it to Barr, no White House official has seen the report or been briefed on it, according to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary. “The next steps are up to Attorney General Barr, and we look forward to the process taking its course,” she said.
Rudy Giuliani, one of the president’s personal lawyers, said he planned to remain in Washington over the weekend in part because Barr might update Congress on Mueller’s findings.
He sidestepped a question about whether the president’s lawyers were seeking to review the report before any of it becomes public. White House lawyers have been preparing for the possibility they may need to argue some material is protected by executive privilege, especially if the report discusses whether the president’s interactions with his top aides or legal advisers are evidence of obstruction of justice.
Even though Mueller’s report is complete, some aspects of his inquiry remain active and may be overseen by the same prosecutors once they are reassigned to their old jobs in the Justice Department. For instance, recently filed court documents suggest that investigators are still examining why former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort turned over campaign polling data in 2016 to a Russian associate who prosecutors said was tied to Russian intelligence.
Mueller looked extensively at whether Trump obstructed justice to protect himself or his associates. But despite months of negotiations, prosecutors were unable to personally interview the president.
Trump’s lawyers insisted that he respond only to written questions from the special counsel. Even though under Justice Department policy, a sitting president cannot be indicted, Trump’s lawyers worried that his responses in an oral interview could bring political repercussions, including impeachment, or put him in legal jeopardy once he is out of office.
Trump has helped make Mueller a household name, attacking his investigation an average of about twice a day as an unfair, politically motivated attempt to invalidate his election. He never forgave former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia inquiry, an action that cleared the way for his deputy, Rosenstein, to appoint Mueller.
Trump reiterated his attacks on the special counsel this week, saying Mueller decided “out of the blue” to write a report, ignoring that regulations require him to do so. But the president also said the report should be made public because of “tens of millions” of Americans would want to know what it contains.
“Let people see it,” Trump said. “There was no collusion. There was no obstruction. There was no nothing.”
In court, the evidence amassed by the Mueller team has held up. Every defendant who is not still awaiting trial either pleaded guilty or was convicted by a jury. Although no American has been charged with illegally plotting with the Russians to tilt the election, Mueller uncovered a web of lies by former Trump aides.
Five of them were found to have deceived federal investigators or Congress about their interactions with Russians during the campaign or the transition. They include Manafort; Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser; and Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and longtime fixer. A sixth former adviser, Roger Stone, is to stand trial in November on charges of lying to Congress.
Those who know Mueller, a former FBI director, had predicted a concise, legalistic report devoid of opinions — nothing like the 445-page treatise that Ken Starr, who investigated President Bill Clinton, produced in 1998. Operating under a now-defunct statute that governed independent counsels, Starr had far more leeway than Mueller to set his own investigative boundaries and to render judgments.
The regulations that governed Mueller, who was under the supervision of the Justice Department, only required him to explain his decisions to either seek or decline to seek criminal charges in a confidential report to the attorney general. The attorney general is then required to notify the leadership of the House and Senate judiciary committees.
Despite pledging transparency, Barr may be reluctant to release the part of Mueller’s report that may be of most interest: who the special counsel declined to prosecute and why, especially if Trump is on that list.
The department’s long-standing practice, with rare exceptions, is not to identify people who were merely investigative targets to avoid unfairly tainting their reputations, especially because they would have no chance to defend themselves in a court of law. Rosenstein, who has overseen Mueller’s work and may have a say in what is released, is a firm believer in that principle.
In a May 2017 letter that the president seized upon as justification for his decision to fire James Comey as FBI director, Rosenstein severely criticized Comey for announcing during the previous year that Hillary Clinton, then a presidential candidate, would not be charged with a crime for mishandling classified information as secretary of state. Releasing “derogatory information about the subject of a declined criminal investigation,” Rosenstein wrote, is “a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do.”
Weighing that principle against the public’s right to know is even more fraught in the president’s case. If Mueller declined to pursue criminal charges against Trump, he might have been guided not by lack of evidence, but by the Justice Department’s legal opinions that a sitting president cannot be indicted. The department’s Office of Legal Counsel has repeatedly advised that the stigma and burden of being under prosecution would damage the president’s ability to lead.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the head of the House Judiciary Committee, has argued that the department’s view that presidents are protected from prosecution makes it all the more important for the public to see Mueller’s report.
“To maintain that a sitting president cannot be indicted, and then to withhold evidence of wrongdoing from Congress because the president cannot be charged, is to convert DOJ policy into the means for a cover-up,” he said before the House approved its nonbinding resolution to disclose the special counsel’s findings.
Some predict that any disclosures from Mueller’s report will satisfy neither Trump’s critics nor his defenders, especially given the public’s high expectations for answers. A Washington Post-Schar School poll in February illustrated the sharp divide in public opinion: It found that of those surveyed, most Republicans did not believe evidence of crimes that Mueller’s team had already proved in court, while most Democrats believed he had proved crimes that he had not even claimed.