Four big questions as the Mueller report looms
The long-awaited conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation appears nigh, as The Washington Post's Devlin Barrett, Josh Dawsey and Matt Zapotosky reported:
"Justice Department officials are preparing for the end of special counsel Robert Mueller'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. ...
"Mueller could deliver his report to Attorney General William Barr next week, according to a person familiar with the matter who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive deliberations."
Here are a few big questions we could soon learn the answers to.
1. Will we ever see the "report" -- or anything close to it?
There has long been an assumption, that all this waiting will lead to a payoff: A full, public report, written by Mueller, that would detail everything that he found -- a "Mueller report." That assumption may have been wrong. While we got a full "Starr Report" in the 1990s, Mueller is working under a different statute.
And at his confirmation hearing, Barr made clear he views the Justice Department as being constrained when it comes to what it can release. "The rules, I think, say the special counsel will prepare a summary report on any prosecutive or declination decisions" -- i.e., decisions on what can be charged and what won't be charged -- "and that shall be confidential and be treated as any other declination or prosecutive material within the department."
Barr did assure the senators that he would try to release what he could. "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."
Judging by Barr's comments, it seems unlikely we'll see the full report unless Congress forces its release, which Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., says he'll attempt to do (and others will undoubtedly support).
Beyond that, we don't know what information Barr will feel that he can share, within Justice Department rules. He suggests something will be shared with the public -and, as Philip Bump writes, it's difficult to see how he could avoid some kind of real disclosure -- but we just don't know what that might be.
2. What will we learn about Trump?
Related to the point above is the biggest question of all: What will the report say about Trump? Or, more specifically, what will we and Congress learn it says about Trump?
Here's why that's a different question: Existing Justice Department guidelines say a sitting president can't be indicted. So if Barr believes he can only pursue evidence related to prosecutive decisions, where does that leave information about Trump -- specifically as relates to potential obstruction of justice -- that isn't technically chargeable? Will we only learn about Trump's actions through charges against other individuals? Or will there be some other way Barr might release that information?
It's difficult to believe, given the volume of Trump's questionable actions with regards to people involved in the investigation, that we wouldn't get this information somehow. But it's not clear how -- or even that -- we will.
One key thing to remember in all of this, though: Barr did say he believes a president can commit obstruction of justice. What that means for what he can report about it, who knows?
3. Does it come with any big indictments -- possibly for Jerome Corsi or even Donald Trump Jr.?
One of the frustrating things about the submission of Mueller report is that, whatever we learn, it may not come right away. Assuming we learn that it has been submitted to the Justice Department, it will then take some time for Barr et. al. to write their own summary (or summaries) for Congress and the public.
In the meantime, though, it seems possible Mueller could offer more indictments, and we could learn plenty through them. Roger Stone associate Jerome Corsi has seemed a likely candidate for an indictment for months now -- he even predicted he would be indicted. Donald Trump Jr. has also reportedly told friends that he worries he could be indicted too.
The latter, of course, would be a massive development. But we could learn plenty through other indictments that could land -- or even possibly through additional crimes charged against figures who have already been charges with other crimes. It's theoretically possible Mueller didn't want to disclose too much of what he found in the collusion/conspiracy portion of his investigation, but could bring that forward now.
Mueller has shown a tendency to use "speaking indictments" to disseminate information, and perhaps he could do that here in lieu of a full public "Mueller report."
4. What is Mueller's 'impeachable' threshold?
Back when we got the Starr Report, it listed 11 possible impeachable offenses that Bill Clinton committed. But again, Kenneth Starr was working under a different statute, with broader disclosure requirements.
Regardless of whether we actually see something amounting to a "Mueller report," will it delineate areas in which Trump might have committed impeachable offenses, or will it simply provide information? And if it does the former, what is Mueller's threshold for determining wrongdoing -- or potential wrongdoing -- by the president of the United States? Collusion/conspiracy and obstruction of justice are somewhat nebulous concepts, and it's not clear that we'll have anything amounting to a consensus smoking gun.
Even if we never see this, it is important. After the report is released, Congress needs to decide whether Trump's actions might warrant impeachment. If this is all just a bunch of information, it will be easier for Republicans to dismiss it. If Mueller decides that Trump may have done things worthy of impeachment -- assuming Congress learns about that somehow -- it will be more difficult for the GOP to ignore.