Robert Mueller’s Russia probe has to end with a report. But anyone looking for a grand narrative on President Donald Trump, Russian election interference and all the juicy details uncovered over the last 20 months could end up disappointed.
Attorney General nominee William Barr, who will oversee the investigation after an almost certain Senate confirmation, says he wants to release as much information as he can about the probe into possible coordination between Trump associates and Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election. But during his confirmation hearing Tuesday, he also made clear that he will ultimately decide what the public sees — and that any report will be in his words, not Mueller’s.
Some key questions about the Russia probe endgame:
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE INVESTIGATION ENDS?
Mueller will have to turn in a report of some kind when he’s done, but it could be pretty bare bones.
Justice Department regulations only require that Mueller give the attorney general a confidential report that explains the decisions to pursue or to decline prosecutions. That could be as simple as a bullet point list or as fulsome as a report running hundreds of pages.
And Mueller has given no guidance on which of those it will be. Asked repeatedly over the past year, Mueller spokesman Peter Carr has declined to comment.
WHAT DOES BARR SAY HE’LL DO?
He said he envisions two reports — and only one for congressional and public consumption.
Barr said Tuesday he takes seriously the “shall be confidential” part of the regulations governing Mueller’s report, noting that Justice Department protocol says internal memos explaining charging decisions shouldn’t be released.
According to Barr, Mueller will turn in his report and then Barr will draft a second one for the chair and ranking members of the House and Senate Judiciary committees. But here again, the regulations provide little guidance for what such a report would say.
The attorney general is only required to say the investigation has concluded and give “a description and explanation” of any times when he or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided that an action Mueller proposed “was so inappropriate or unwarranted” that it shouldn’t be pursued.
Barr indicated that he anticipates he would use his report to share the results of Mueller’s investigation with the public, which the regulations allow him to do. But he hedged on specifics and said his plans could change after speaking with Mueller and Rosenstein.
“I don’t know what at the end of the day what will be releasable. I don’t know what Bob Mueller is writing,” he said.
WHAT WILL TRUMP DO?
Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has said the legal team wants to review any report before it’s released. He’s also raised the prospect that defense lawyers could try to involve executive privilege to prevent the disclosure of any confidential conversation the president has had with his aides.
But it’s not clear the president’s lawyers will get an advance look at Mueller’s conclusions. Mueller, after all, reports to the Justice Department — not the White House.
Barr himself seemed to dismiss that idea. When Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, asked Barr if Trump and his lawyers would be able to correct the report before its release and put their own spin on it, the nominee replied flatly: “That will not happen.”
WILL THERE BE A FINAL PRESS CONFERENCE?
It’s hard to say, but it seems unlikely — especially if prosecutors plan to discuss people they never charged.
Former FBI Director James Comey broke from Justice Department protocol in extraordinary fashion with his July 2016 news conference announcing the FBI would not recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server. And Barr has made clear his disapproval.
“If you’re not going to indict someone, you don’t stand up there and unload negative information about the person,” he said.
That said, there have been occasions where the department has elaborated on decisions not to pursue criminal charges. There’s also some precedent for special counsels to hold news conferences.
Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel who investigated the outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame, held a 2005 press conference when he charged I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. But even then, Fitzgerald drew a clear line that appears to line up with Mueller’s attitude so far.
“I’m not an independent counsel, and I do not have the authority to write a report, and, frankly, I don’t think I should have that authority,” Fitzgerald said at the time. “I think we should conduct this like any other criminal investigation: charge someone or be quiet.”
CAN’T DEMOCRATS IN CONGRESS JUST SUBPOENA MUELLER AND HIS REPORT?
Sure. And New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has said as much.
“We could subpoena the final report. We could subpoena Mueller and ask him in front of the committee what was in your final report. Those are things we could do,” Nadler said in October on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
But Trump, as the leader of the executive branch, could direct the Justice Department to defy the subpoena, prompting a court fight that would almost certainly go to the Supreme Court.