Justice Department officials are preparing for the end of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s nearly two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and believe a confidential report could be issued in coming days, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Regulations call for Mueller to submit to the attorney general a confidential explanation as to why he decided to charge certain individuals, as well as who else he investigated and why he decided not to charge those people. The regulations then call for the attorney general to report to Congress about the investigation.
An adviser to President Trump said there is palpable concern among the president’s inner circle that the report might contain information about Trump and his team that is politically damaging, but not criminal conduct.
Even before he was confirmed by the Senate, Barr had preliminary discussions about the logistics surrounding the conclusion of Mueller’s inquiry, a second person said. At that time, though, Barr had not been briefed on the substance of Mueller’s investigation, so the conversations were limited.
CNN first reported Wednesday that Mueller could send a report to Barr as early as next week.
A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment, as did a Justice Department spokeswoman.
How detailed either Mueller’s report and the attorney general’s summary of the findings will be is unclear. Lawmakers have demanded that Mueller’s report be made public, but Barr has been noncommittal on that point, saying that he intends to be as forthcoming as the regulations and department practice allow. He has pointed, however, to Justice Department practices that insist on saying little or nothing about conduct that does not lead to criminal charges.
The special counsel’s office, which used to have 17 lawyers, is down to 12 now, and some of those attorneys have recently been in touch with their old bosses about returning to work, according to people familiar with the discussions. All but four of the remaining 12 lawyers are detailed from other Justice Department offices.
The end of the special counsel’s probe would not mean the end of criminal investigations connected to the president. Federal prosecutors in New York, for instance, are exploring whether corrupt payments were made in connection with Trump’s inaugural committee funding.
If Mueller does close up shop, government lawyers on his team would likely return to their original posts, but would be able to continue to work on the prosecution of cases initiated by the special counsel’s office.
That was the case for two special counsel lawyers, Brandon Van Grack and Scott Meisler, who have left the office formally but are still working on cases begun by Mueller.
When the special counsel brought the case against Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser and friend, accusing him of lying to Congress, attorneys from the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington were assigned to it from the start — an indication that Mueller expects to hand off the investigation soon.
The four prosecutors remaining who aren’t part of the Justice Department are some of the special counsel’s highest-ranking lawyers: Aaron Zebley, who is effectively Mueller’s chief of staff; James Quarles, who is a senior executive in the office; Jeannie Rhee, the lead prosecutor in the case against Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney; and Greg Andres, the lead prosecutor in the trial of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman.
According to people familiar with the special counsel’s work, Mueller has envisioned it as an investigative assignment, not necessarily a prosecutorial one, and for that reason does not plan to keep the office running to see to the end all of the indictments it has filed.
Mueller’s work has led to criminal charges against 34 people. Six Trump associates and advisers have pleaded guilty.
Among those who have pleaded guilty are Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn; former deputy campaign manger Rick Gates; and former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, as well as Manafort and Cohen.
Most of the people charged in Mueller’s investigation are Russians. Because there is no extradition treaty with that country, those 26 individuals are unlikely to ever see the inside of a U.S. courtroom.
None of the Americans charged by Mueller are accused of conspiring with Russia to interfere in the election. Determining whether any Trump associates had plotted with the Kremlin in 2016 was the central question assigned to Mueller when he got the job, in a moment of crisis for the FBI, the Justice Department and the country.
Days earlier, Trump had fired FBI Director James B. Comey. The purported reason for the dismissal was Comey’s handling of the 2016 investigation of Hillary Clinton, but Trump said in an interview with NBC shortly after the firing that he was thinking about the Russia inquiry when he decided to fire Comey.
Because FBI directors are appointed to 10-year terms to ensure their political independence, the Comey firing rattled Washington, setting off alarms not just in the Justice Department but in Congress, where lawmakers feared the president was determined to end the Russia investigation before it was completed.
In the wake of Comey’s firing, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein chose Mueller as special counsel in part to quell the burgeoning political crisis.
Mueller, a Vietnam War veteran, prosecutor and former FBI director, was highly regarded. Politicians on both sides of the aisle — as well as law enforcement and intelligence veterans within federal agencies — had long admired and trusted Mueller, a Republican.
Trump has repeatedly denounced the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt” and accused Mueller’s prosecutors of political bias because a number of them had made donations to Democratic candidates in the past. Some congressional Republicans who back the president have repeatedly attacked Mueller’s work as corrupted by anti-Trump bias among Comey and his senior advisers at the FBI.
When Mueller’s investigation ends, it is likely to set off a fresh political firestorm.
Democrats are already demanding a detailed public accounting of what Mueller found, beyond what is in the public indictments and trial evidence to date. Republicans, meanwhile, are poised to escalate their attacks on the special counsel’s work as a waste of time and money — and paint the end of the investigation as final proof that there was nothing to the suspicion that the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin.
Much of Mueller’s time was spent trying to determine whether the president attempted to obstruct the investigation. Toward that end, Mueller questioned those closest to the president about his private statements about the inquiry, his public tweets that attacked law enforcement officials, and internal White House documents that might shed light on Trump’s behavior.
Months and months of negotiations over a possible interview of Trump came to little. Ultimately, Mueller and the Justice Department did not serve the president with a subpoena, which could have led to a fight at the Supreme Court, and Trump’s lawyers submitted written answers to questions from the special counsel.