The conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe has been predicted for months now, first with semi-sincere eagerness by attorneys working for the president and then, as the months wound on, by various news organizations trying to read the still-obscured leaves at the bottom of the tea cup.
In December, NBC News reported that the probe might end by mid-February, citing unnamed government officials and after speaking with an attorney who had worked with Mueller. Late last month, then-acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker said publicly that the probe was nearing its conclusion, a statement that mirrored reporting from CNN on Wednesday that Mueller’s work could be done imminently. CNN’s report included details about lawyers leaving Mueller’s team and boxes of documents being removed from his office.
If Mueller’s investigation is in fact ending soon, it will gin up an inevitable and completely understandable interest in what, exactly, he discovered. The assumption, particularly for those who were around in the late 1990s for the conclusion of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s work, is that we’re about to get a big, thick book detailing what Mueller learned. But that assumption is wrong.
The Post’s Aaron Blake explained why last month. Starr and Mueller were empowered under different rules. Mueller’s work is constrained by regulations drafted in the wake of Starr’s investigation. Those regulations stipulate that he hands a confidential report to the attorney general — as of last week, William Barr — who then informs Congress about the probe’s termination and about times at which the Department of Justice prohibited Mueller from taking an action, if any.
As for a report, the attorney general "may determine that public release of these reports would be in the public interest, to the extent that release would comply with applicable legal restrictions,” the regulations read. “All other releases of information by any Department of Justice employee, including the Special Counsel and staff, concerning matters handled by Special Counsels shall be governed by the generally applicable Departmental guidelines concerning public comment with respect to any criminal investigation, and relevant law.”
In other words, very little may be released beyond the various indictments already obtained and made public by Mueller. (Which, we’ll note, is not an insignificant amount of material.)
Several people associated with the administration have hinted that no report may be forthcoming. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Tuesday night that there may be no report on Mueller’s work. Trump’s former attorney John Dowd told ABC News earlier this month that he didn’t expect any report.
From a legal standpoint, that may be true. From a political one, it’s trickier.
Earlier this month, The Post released the results of a poll conducted with the Schar School in which we specifically asked respondents whether the report should be released in full. Not only did about 4 in 5 respondents say they thought it should be released in full, nearly two-thirds of Americans felt strongly that it should be. That included more than 6 in 10 Republicans — a group among whom 7 in 10 said they disapproved of how Mueller was conducting his probe.
In other words, there will likely be enormous public demand for the results to be released.
More than that, though, the administration will almost certainly want to tamp down speculation about what might be included in the report. Mueller is uniquely positioned to offer an independent assessment of various rumors that have circled around Trump and his campaign for years; to the extent that Mueller’s findings don’t severely implicate the White House, it’s in the administration’s interest to release as much of what Mueller found as possible.
Barr referred to an interest in releasing as much as possible during his confirmation hearings.
“The A.G. has some flexibility and discretion in terms of the A.G.'s report,” he said. “What I am saying is, my objective and goal is to get as much as I can of the information to Congress and the public.” He also noted that Mueller is bound only by regulations established by the Justice Department, suggesting that he has some leeway.
Of course, Barr also understood that many of the senators voting on his confirmation wanted to hear that he would treat the results of Mueller’s probe with generosity. Barr was criticized after his nomination when it was learned that he had written a memo criticizing the idea that the special counsel might investigate the president for obstruction of justice. Unsurprisingly, then, CNN’s report about the possible conclusion of Mueller’s work also quickly spawned questions about whether a newly installed Barr was responsible for ordering Mueller to draw things to a close.
It’s hard to evaluate those concerns, especially given that the probe hasn’t ended. But it serves as a reminder that, for all of the political utility in releasing as much of the report as possible and therefore keeping speculation constrained, the White House probably has a counteracting impulse to bury negative information, particularly with the 2020 election looming.
At the heart of questions about Mueller’s report is the more important desire of the public to know what exactly happened with members of Trump’s campaign and the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election. The deeply unsatisfying response to that desire is simply that, even when Mueller’s done, we may not know everything he learned — or the answers to all of those questions.
Aaron Blake contributed to this report.