What if the Mueller Report Does Actually Drop Next Week?

February 22, 2019
In The News

News that the special counsel is wrapping up is nearly as old as the investigation itself, but this week, some of the strongest evidence yet suggests that Robert Mueller is indeed preparing to release his nearly two-year inquiry into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. On Wednesday, CNN reported that the Justice Department is getting ready to announce as early next week that the special counsel investigation has concluded. A New York Times report on Thursday extends that timeline to “within weeks,” giving the educated guesswork an element of a Groundhog Day prediction: The Mueller investigation, like winter, will likely end sometime in the coming month.

Whenever Mueller does finish, he will submit findings to Attorney General William Barr, along with a recommendation for whether the Department of Justice should prosecute any additional individuals. Barr will then send a summary of the findings to Congress. Trump, who will be in Vietnam next week meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has said that it is “totally up to Bill Barr” whether or not the Mueller report comes out while he is in Asia.

Trump’s legal team and White House officials are reportedly scrambling to prepare for the investigation’s end, but the president, for one, is not expected to change his tune on the matter. “I think what he’ll say is, ‘I told you all along there was nothing to any of this,’” a source close to the White House told the Hill. But if Trump is certain that the special counsel will prove itself to be a “witch hunt,” just about everyone else glued to the story for the past 21 months has some major questions remaining about the investigation’s endgame.

What Will the Public Get to See?

For #resistance types hoping for a damning report, there’s some inverse logic at work: The less damaging Mueller’s findings are, the more likely we are to see the bulk of them. “If the White House determines that the special counsel’s report contains no finding or conclusion that the president engaged in any unlawful conspiracies — what the White House refers to as ‘collusion’ — they might view the disclosure of the report to affirm their repeated messaging about the investigation and therefore to be in their political interest,” David Laufman, a former Department of Justice official who oversaw the Clinton email investigation, told Vanity Fair.

Ultimately, it is unclear how comprehensive the report that Attorney General Barr sends to Congress will be, and there is no official timeline for the DOJ to deliver its summary to lawmakers. Prior to his appointment as attorney general, Barr called the Mueller investigation “grossly irresponsible,” but in confirmation hearings he stated he intends to be as transparent as possible in dealing with the matter with Congress and the public.

Barr has also said he is hesitant to release information that is “derogatory” toward individuals — in this case, most likely Trump family members — who have not been charged with a crime. So it’s quite possible we may not get to see the campaign foibles of Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr., assuming they remain unindicted. Still, Democrats in Congress will surely pressure Barr to give the public as much of the report as possible.

How Damaging Could It Be for Trump?

If it’s bad, the Mueller report could paralyze the Trump administration, or give some momentum to House Democrats’ desire to impeach the president. But a fully charged impeachment effort is unlikely: The House can impeach with a majority vote, but to get the Senate onboard would require 67 votes, meaning at least 20 Republicans would have to sign off on a maneuver that would radically reduce their chances of winning the presidency in 2020. Even if Mueller concludes that Trump acted in a manner worthy of removal, it’s unlikely that two out of five Republican senators will break ranks.

More likely, the report will be somewhat underwhelming after nearly two years of buildup. (It’s quite possible that the bulk of the investigation into Russian interference has already been made public.) Regardless, the Democratic House will pressure Trump to make the report public, leading to inevitable tweetstorms of frustration.

As New York’s Jonathan Chait has argued, the greatest impact of the final Mueller report could be to the president’s chances of reelection next November:

Most of this information has been filtered through the prism of impeachment, and thus turned into a story about Democrats potentially overreaching or following a quixotic strategy. It should be viewed more realistically as the shaping of a dismal news environment for Trump. The already-unpopular president is looking at two years of perp walks, incriminating testimony and — at best! — a series of suspicious presidential pardons. He barely managed to win the presidency as a brash, controversial novelty. He will have to win it a second time as a known crook.

What About the Other Investigations?

If the report does not provide a clear vindication of the president, Mueller’s work could propel the House investigation into new territory. As Neal K. Katyal wrote in his Times op-ed:

Of course, there is no open impeachment inquiry now. But that could quickly change if Mr. Mueller writes a report that is anything less than a full clearing of the president: Congress would be under a constitutional obligation to investigate the facts for itself. Congress cannot be satisfied that impeachable offenses were not committed when Mr. Mueller’s investigative mandate did not cover many impeachable offenses, and when his report does not provide detailed information and answers to the few offenses that are within his mandate. This is where Mr. Mueller’s “by the book” behavior may be initially unsatisfying to Mr. Trump’s critics but ultimately more threatening to the president in the long run.

And as House Judiciary member Ted Lieu told CNN on Wednesday: “If it doesn’t [exonerate Trump], if it basically says, hey, we would have indicted Donald Trump for these offenses, but for the fact that there’s a policy memo saying we can’t, then I think Congress has to really look at these issues and decide what to do with whatever offenses the Robert Mueller investigation reveals … Separate from that, the House Judiciary Committee and other committees in Congress will investigate other aspects of potential wrongdoing, such as obstruction of justice, witness tampering, abuse of power.”

Trump also faces further scrutiny in New York state, where Attorney General Letitia James is pursuing a lawsuit against the Trump Foundation and its “shocking pattern of illegality,” as well as a possible inquiry into whether or not Trump has violated the emoluments clause, which states that the president cannot accept gifts from foreign powers without congressional approval. In the Southern District of New York, federal prosecutors are investigating Trump’s inaugural committee and the family business, in addition to the now-wrapped inquiry into Michael Cohen that resulted in the president’s former fixer pleading guilty to eight criminal charges. “When you combine their experience with the traditional independence of the Southern District and the reputation it has, this is like another Mueller investigation going on,” Nick Akerman, a former SDNY assistant attorney and member of the Watergate prosecution, told Politico.

With Robert Mueller exiting the conversation, Democratic voters looking for the next scrap of evidence proving Trump’s corrupt nature should put their hopes in House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff. From the president’s dealings with Deutsche Bank to possible instances of money laundering, Schiff plans to dig further into Trump’s finances, an avenue that has, thus far, been rife with financial misconduct. “There’s a whole constellation of issues where that is essentially the center of gravity,” Schiff told The New Yorker last year, referring to Trump’s attempts to use the presidency to enrich himself. With such a macroscopic perspective of Trump’s alleged wrongdoings, the investigations will surely continue after Mueller returns to the private sector.