Written by Nicholas Fandos and Noah Weiland
Television crews have been positioned outside the offices of the special counsel, the federal courthouse and, at least before they were asked to leave, the McLean, Virginia, home of the new attorney general, William Barr.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are so desperate for hints that they are asking aides to call Justice Department contacts to beg for morsels.
Publishing houses are scrambling to produce instant books of the findings. Newspapers are deploying small armies of reporters. At bars, restaurants, cocktail parties and street corners, people are asking one another the same question.
When is it coming out?
Washington — jittery, full of rumor, like a becalmed ship in the dead air before a coming storm — is waiting for the report of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether President Donald Trump or his aides conspired in the effort or obstructed justice. It may or may not be the report of the century, it may or may not be ready soon, and it may be only a few pages long. But it is unquestionably one of the capital’s most anticipated documents since the Starr Report on President Bill Clinton arrived by the truckload on Capitol Hill in September 1998.
Real information — actually, any information at all from Mueller’s astonishingly leak-free team — is almost nonexistent. “The folks who know aren’t talking, and the folks who don’t won’t stop,” said Antonia Ferrier, the former communications director for Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader.
The result is energetic spinning from both parties, who have stepped into the void to try to frame the next chapter of Trump’s presidency.
Democrats, worried that Mueller’s report will be a dud, are now casting it as one step in their coming investigations of a presidency flush with accusations of wrongdoing. They say the House, which they control, has a duty to conduct oversight, regardless of what the special counsel concludes.
“I have the utmost respect for Mr. Mueller; I am accepting of whatever he brings,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee. “But that cannot be the end of it.”
As they wait, House Democrats are playing down talk of impeachment in favor of new congressional investigations that can absorb Mueller’s findings and provide continued scrutiny if the president is cleared. Their topics are familiar: Russian contacts, obstruction of justice, abuse of power and a scheme to buy the silence of a pornographic film actress who claimed an affair with Trump.
“The mission of the House of Representatives is very different than Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., a member of the Judiciary Committee, the body where any impeachment proceedings would begin.
Lieu said House Democrats would reject the premise that Mueller’s clearing Trump of personal coordination with the Russians would amount to any broader exoneration.
“Just because he is cleared of one,” Lieu said, “doesn’t mean he is cleared of nine other ones.”
The president and his allies are continuing to label the investigation an overreach — Trump prefers to refer to it in all caps as a WITCH HUNT — and have kept the bar for wrongdoing very high. Outwardly confident Mueller will not find evidence of a conspiracy between Trump and Russia, they have routinely sought to reduce Mueller’s investigation to a single term — “collusion” — or bust.
Anything short of that, including a charge of obstruction of justice, they insist, would justify having the whole inquiry dismissed.
“If Mueller could not find anything with his overzealous but skilled, relentless investigators, the FBI, a grand jury and a discipline which is unknown to a congressional group, then multiple House Democratic committees will not be a search for the truth but a forum to launch attacks on the president,” Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers, wrote in a text message over the weekend. As for acts that could be called obstruction of justice, Trump was rightfully exercising powers granted by the constitution, Giuliani added.
As the president left the White House for Alabama and then his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida last weekend, he made his confidence known. “Keep the hoax going,” he told reporters before heading into Marine One. “It’s just a hoax.”
Republicans in Congress, while privately worried Mueller could still deliver an unpleasant surprise, have provided backup. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, rounded up reporters Friday to say Democrats were launching a “fishing expedition” because they “don’t believe they are going to get what they’ve been asking for — and dying for — for two years.”
In the meantime, guessing has dominated social gatherings in Washington, where debate over precedent often bounces from Whitewater to Watergate.
On Monday night hundreds of people crowded into the Bier Baron Tavern near Dupont Circle to sip brews as Randall D. Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at nearby George Washington University, lectured on the Mueller investigation and presented a slideshow with pub trivia. (Q: Who was the Russian charged as a co-defendant with Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, for witness tampering? A: Konstantin Kilimnik.) Eliason also played down any expectations that the president would be indicted or that the entirety of Mueller’s report would be available to ordinary citizens.
“If you don’t charge somebody, you don’t write a report about it and release it to the public,” Eliason said. “That’s just not the way the Justice Department is supposed to work.”
A mile up Florida Avenue in the busy Adams Morgan neighborhood, Lee Farmer, a city planner, and Elizabeth Rairigh, a historic preservationist, were drinking wine at the Jack Rose Dining Saloon, both worn out by constant news of the report’s coming release.
“I have this constant anticipation of something,” Rairigh said. “Every day I’m disappointed.”
Farmer said she recently gave up cable news — an improvement, she joked, for her mental health. She added of the report, “I’ll find out before I die.”
On that topic, an NPR report last week suggested that some elderly anti-Trump Americans have taken that sentiment seriously and are trying to stay alive until Mueller’s work is done.
Inside the White House, preparation has not been much more extensive.
There is no war room preparing to deal with Mueller’s findings and no intention to set one up, as Bill Clinton did when he faced impeachment and possible removal from office. There are no calls with surrogates to line up a messaging plan. The president’s advisers are simply flying blind, said one person directly involved in the planning, who was not authorized to discuss it.
Their problem is familiar. White House officials do not know for certain that the report will be sent to the White House for review for executive privilege issues before it is submitted to the Justice Department, not to mention what it will say.
For those caught up in the special counsel investigation, the wait is even more freighted.
“My family’s life has been on pause for two years, and we have been waiting to press play ever since the rumors of the end of the investigation,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign aide who was questioned by Mueller’s team.
The scrutiny has cost Caputo business and significant legal fees, he said, but he expressed optimism that the release of Mueller’s findings will allow him to move on.
“So make with the report already,” he said.