After an investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election that lasted almost two years, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has filed his final report on the matter to Attorney General William Barr. We now know more than we knew this morning, but it will take days, weeks, months and perhaps years before we learn everything we want to know.
What we can say with assurance is that Mueller and his team — admirable public servants to the end — conducted their probe without leaks, mindful of the law, and with enough resolve to proceed despite unprecedented public and private meddling from President Donald Trump and his cronies in Congress. Mueller also moved along swiftly for an investigation of this scope and gravity (Kenneth Starr, in comparison, spent four years investigating President Bill Clinton).
What we can’t say yet is what firm and final conclusions Mueller has drawn from his exploration of whether Trump and his presidential team colluded with Russia or its proxies during the 2016 election — and whether Trump or anyone else in his orbit obstructed that probe or any investigations preceding or related to it.
We know now that Mueller, in what can only be construed as institutional deference to the presidency, decided not to subpoena or otherwise compel Trump to testify in person and under oath. That may not be a surprise, given that Mueller is an institutionalist to his core. But it also is a glaring and, in my mind, unfortunate lapse in what otherwise appears to have been a thorough and sophisticated investigation. Trump has provided written answers to Mueller’s queries, but compelling the president to answer in person would have given the probe and its report more authority and traction — especially given how aggressively the president chose to interfere with what he relentlessly described as a “witch hunt.”
We also know that Mueller levelled about 200 criminal charges against 34 people and three Russian companies. Within that group, 26 people were Russian nationals and six were once Trump advisers (Michael Cohen, Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, Paul Manafort, George Papadopoulos and Roger Stone, to jog your memory). Trump’s presidential campaign and his transition into the White House were populated by criminals, the facts of which can’t be disputed thanks to Mueller’s investigation. Russians, beyond a doubt, burglarized private computer servers of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign adviser John Podesta in an effort to tilt the 2016 election in Trump’s favor, the facts of which are also indisputable thanks to Mueller’s investigation. Russian interests also used social media to disseminate fake news and support Trump at the direction of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Those facts can’t be disputed, either, thanks to Mueller’s investigation.
Mueller had a broad investigative mandate when he was authorized to launch his probe on May 17, 2017. That envisioned a “full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election” and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” We can now reasonably conclude that Mueller chose to dive deeply into probing interference in the election, but chose to interpret “any matters” arising from that probe more narrowly (perhaps because of political pressure to keep his focus tight, or simply because he interpreted the legal boundaries that way himself). That appears to have meant that Mueller decided to leave an examination of the Trump Organization and the president’s business dealings and finances to other law enforcement officials (best exemplified, perhaps, by his decision to refer the Cohen prosecution to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan).
In that context, we also know now that Mueller’s team found no reason to indict Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner or other members of the Trump family — including, of course, the president himself — as part of its investigation. That certainly doesn’t mean, however, that the president, his family and his company are out of the woods legally. They’re all being scrutinized by a number of investigators, including federal prosecutors in Manhattan, three state attorneys general and five congressional committees. Parts of those probes could continue for years.
In the near term, Mueller’s report marks the end of the beginning of the Trump investigations. In a letter to senior congressional leaders on Friday evening, Barr said he may be able to inform them of the Mueller report’s “principal conclusions” sometime this weekend. He said he plans to confer with both Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein “to determine what other information from the report can be released to Congress and the public consistent with the law” and that he is “committed to as much transparency as possible.”
There’s the rub. The actions of the most transparently unethical and lawless president of the modern era are being formally memorialized by law enforcement in a report and through a process that has been largely opaque. We don’t know what we don’t know, and Barr is about to take the first crack at deciding what we should know. He and Congress may be poised for an epic showdown over transparency and the full contours of Robert Mueller’s magnum opus.