Building upon rumors and other vague reports that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation may soon be coming to some sort of a close, CNN published a story Wednesday afternoon claiming that the Justice Department is preparing to receive a report from the former FBI director as early as next week.
Given the complexities of the case, the special counsel regulations, shake-ups in the Justice Department, and lack of clarity around reporting from anonymous sources, it was not initially clear what this story means. Some saw it as clear evidence that newly appointed Attorney General William Barr was working to shut down the investigation, while others argued that it reflected trends that have been clear in Mueller’s work for months. It’s also not clear if Mueller’s report means new charges could be coming or what would happen to pending cases.
But there is a lot we do know. Here are seven things to keep in mind to help make sense of this news:
1. Whatever happens next week or with Mueller, investigations of President Donald Trump are certain to continue.
Even if Mueller concluded that Trump was completely cleared of wrongdoing regarding the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and any efforts to obstruct this probe — the two prongs of the case believed to touch on the president — much more of Trump’s past is under scrutiny.
Mueller’s efforts, it seems, have led to at least two other investigations that directly implicate Trump. At this point, the public knows most about the case of Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance crimes as charged by the Southern District of New York — crimes that he alleged he carried out on Trump’s orders. There is also the ongoing investigation out of SDNY of Trump’s inaugural committee, about which less is known but which may involve allegations of money laundering and foreign influence peddling.
Other investigative matters may have also spun off from Mueller’s probe to other parts of the Justice Department. Federal prosecutors from D.C., for example, are already known to be working alongside Mueller’s team on some cases. And on completely separate tracks, the New York attorney general and oversight committees in the House of Representatives are known to be pursuing multiple investigations of Trump and those around him.
2. The regulations are clear about what the “Mueller report” is and isn’t.
If Mueller does issue a “report,” it’s not entirely clear what this means in common parlance. But according to the special counsel regulations, he is required to draft a confidential report on his decisions about why he chose to prosecute — and perhaps most importantly, not to prosecute — certain people for certain crimes. For instance, if Mueller concluded that there was substantial evidence to charge Trump himself with crimes, but decided not to because DOJ policy says he can’t indict a sitting president, this decision would presumably be recorded in this report.
But that report is not public. It goes to the attorney general who then makes the decision about what to do with. It likely would contain classified material and other information, such as grand jury testimony, which cannot be made public. The attorney general may then decide to make part of the report public, share it with Congress, or lock it away in a filing cabinet.
Also of note is that, since Barr has only just joined the Justice Department, he may not have yet been cleared by ethics officials to oversee Mueller. That may mean that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who first appointed Mueller, may still be in charge of the investigation.
3. Mueller is preparing to submit a sentencing filing on Paul Manafort soon — and it could be explosive.
Some, like reporter Marcy Wheeler, have suggested that Mueller’s report may come in the form of court filings. And one major court filing coming up is Mueller’s sentencing memo regarding Paul Manafort.
Of course, we don’t know what it will say until it’s made public. But it’s possible Mueller may use this filing to make public a good deal of substantial and important information that was not previously known. This could end up serving as a something like a public “report” — one that the attorney general would likely be unable to block. However, it may be highly redacted.
4. People familiar with Mueller don’t believe he’d let the investigation be prematurely thwarted.
Much of the initial reaction to CNN’s report reflected fears that Trump’s new attorney general was inappropriately bringing the investigation to a close. Many people familiar with Mueller and the Justice Department, however, doubted this hypothesis.
“Everyone caterwauling over Barr immediately ‘ending’ Mueller probe: Remember Mueller’s team has had months to prepare to be ousted/fired/shutdown,” said Garrett Graff, who wrote a book about Mueller’s time leading the FBI. “Idea that they’d be caught by surprise, without recourse, is absurd. If Mueller is wrapping up, he means to.”
Matthew Miller, a former DOJ spokesperson, concurred.
“Agree 100%,” he said on Twitter. “Though we of course need to verify everything, if Mueller is ending now, it’s almost certainly his decision.”
5. If Mueller were being silenced, there could be leaks and resignations.
Fears about Mueller being obstructed internally are also misplaced because there would likely be significant signs of dissension were this to happen. Officials could resign from the department in protest. Information about the investigation could begin leaking. Mueller himself could hold a press conference to discuss any untoward efforts to shut him up — a move that would be guaranteed to hold the nation’s attention.
6. There are still many threads in the investigation that don’t appear to have concluded.
However, there is reason to have some doubts about the news. There are significant threads in the Mueller probe that have yet to be satisfactorily resolved.
For example, though Mueller has charged Roger Stone, he has yet to charge Stone’s associate Jerome Corsi. This is surprising because Corsi released what he said was a plea deal, which he rejected, that had been offered by Mueller. It seems unlikely that Mueller would have offered him a plea deal if he were not prepared to charge Corsi.
There are also to legal battles that Mueller has yet to resolve. One is a mysterious sealed case involving the subpoena of a foreign state-owned company; the other is a grand jury subpoena for another associate of Roger Stone. It’s not clear why Mueller would be wrapping up his investigation without finishing these fights, given that he must have thought they were important in the first place.
There are also myriad other reports and indications of criminal behavior that haven’t yet shown up in any public filings from Mueller. It’s possible none of these threads produced any prosecutable evidence. Of course, it’s also possible that Mueller has indictments on some of those matters, or others unknown to the public, under seal, and they may soon be revealed as part of his “report.”
Another possible explanation of these hanging threads, suggested by the CNN report, is that Mueller may have handed off even more aspects of the investigation to other parts of the DOJ than we know. He could be doing this for a variety of reasons, and we may never find out what they are until charges are brought by other prosecutors, if they ever are.
7. We’ve heard similar predictions before.
One final note of caution: We’ve heard claims that Mueller’s wrapping up before, and they’ve proven wrong in the past. Sometimes this idea was put out by Trump’s own attorneys, but reporters have also made the claim as well.
For instance, in June 2018, the Washington Post published a story indicating that Mueller would “write up his findings” about the obstruction of justice investigation into Trump by the end of the summer. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
However, this report did include one suggestion that provides a potential explanation for CNN’s report. It indicated that there would be at least two Mueller “reports” — one on obstruction of justice and another on Russia-related matters. It’s far from certain this prediction was accurate, but if it was, it’s possible the “Mueller report” that is coming down the pike is only one of these possible reports. That could help explain why significant threads in the case remain unresolved.