The head of the Justice Department said Monday that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation is nearing an end, the first official acknowledgment that the probe ensnaring President Trump may soon reach a conclusion.
Acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker made the comment during a news conference to announce indictments against a Chinese technology firm. Asked about his view of the Mueller probe in light of critical comments he made while working as a television pundit in 2017, Whitaker said those statements were offered while he was a private citizen.
“I have been fully briefed on the investigation and I look forward to Director Mueller delivering the final report,” Whitaker said. “I am comfortable that the decisions that were made are going to be reviewed. . . . Right now, you know, the investigation is, I think, close to being completed.”
Whitaker’s remarks, though brief, represent the most extensive comments on the subject by any senior law enforcement official in recent months. They also come just days after Mueller’s office unveiled an indictment of Roger Stone, a longtime friend of Trump. Stone was charged with false statements, obstruction and witness tampering.
Other Mueller cases are still working through the court system, and that process could take months. Law enforcement officials, however, have said Mueller envisions eventually handing off prosecutorial work from his investigation to U.S. attorneys.
Two assistant U.S. attorneys in D.C. were assigned to work with Mueller’s team on the prosecution of Stone — a sign that Mueller is perhaps anticipating a time when he will have to hand off the case to the permanent Justice Department apparatus.
A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.
Whitaker did not define what he meant by “close,” and even if he is correct that Mueller is nearly done with his work, Whitaker may leave the Justice Department before it is complete. The Senate is expected to vote to confirm attorney general nominee William P. Barr next month, and his arrival would likely mean the departure of Whitaker, who previously served as chief of staff to then-attorney general Jeff Sessions.
Barr’s comments during his confirmation hearing two weeks ago before the Senate Judiciary Committee raised concerns among some lawmakers that Mueller’s report may not be made public.
“The rules I think say the special counsel will prepare a summary report on any prosecutive or declination decisions, and that shall be confidential and be treated as any other declination or prosecutive material within the department,” Barr told the committee.
Declination memos are written by Justice Department officials when they decline to file charges against individuals, essentially ending an investigation. They are closely guarded secrets.
Barr said the attorney general is responsible for notifying Congress and reporting “certain information” once the investigation ends, and he sought to assure lawmakers that he would be as transparent as regulations allow.
During the hearing, Barr also criticized former FBI director James B. Comey in a way that suggested Barr, as attorney general, would limit what information is released from the Mueller investigation.
Speaking of Comey’s July 2016 announcement that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the presidential election, would not be charged for her use of a private email server to do government business, Barr said: “If you’re not going to indict someone, you don’t stand up there and unload negative information about the person. That’s not the way the department does business.”
And in written follow-up answers to lawmakers released Monday, Barr expounded on that idea, saying: “I believe it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the special counsel’s work. For that reason, my goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law.”
He noted the Justice Department manual “cautions prosecutors to be sensitive to the privacy and reputational interests of uncharged third parties. It is also my understanding that it is department policy and practice not to criticize individuals for conduct that does not warrant prosecution.”
Those answers don’t sit well with some lawmakers, who want guarantees that Mueller’s findings will not be kept locked in a Justice Department file.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), on Monday introduced a bill that would ensure every special-counsel report would be released directly to Congress and the public, effectively taking out the attorney general as middleman.
Blumenthal said he wanted to ensure the results “cannot be sealed or selectively censored,” adding: “The public has a right and need to know the facts of such betrayals of public trust.”