Q&A: What happens next with Robert Mueller’s report?

Will the special counsel’s findings be the last word on Trump, Russia and collusion?

US president Donald Trump talks to  reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on  Friday. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP.

US president Donald Trump talks to reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Friday. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP.

 

The long-awaited special counsel report is complete, 675 days after Robert Mueller was named to oversee the investigation into Russia’s interference in the US presidential election, whether any Donald Trump associates coordinated with that plot and whether the president tried to obstruct justice.

Attorney general William Barr has the document and notified lawmakers. But it has yet to be made public, and the path to its potential release, or the release of the facts it contains, is complicated.

Will the report be made public?

That remains to be seen. Some information is expected to come out because Mr Barr has to update Congress, but that does not mean the entire report will be public. Mr Barr sent a letter to the leaders of Congress’ judiciary committees saying that the special counsel investigation has been completed, which he is required to do, according to regulations. Mr Barr said he was reviewing the Mueller report and might be able to provide politicians with the special counsel’s “principal conclusions” as early as this weekend.

US attorney general William Barr’s signature is seen on a copy of his letter to US politicians stating that the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller has been concluded and a a report has been submitted. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters.
US attorney general William Barr’s signature is seen on a copy of his letter to US politicians stating that the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller has been concluded and a a report has been submitted. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters.

The regulation also requires that Mr Barr tell the politicians whether he or his predecessors overseeing it opposed any significant step that Mr Mueller sought to take. Mr Barr said “there were no such instances” during the investigation. The special counsel regulation sets no time frame or deadline for when Mr Barr must provide this information to Congress. He is required only to provide very basic facts.

In his letter Friday, Mr Barr said he planned to consult with the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, and Mr Mueller about what other details from the report could be given to Congress and the public.

According to the Justice Department’s explanation of the regulation, published in the Federal Register in 1999, Mr Barr has to determine whether releasing the report, or portions of it, is in the public interest. He has said repeatedly that he would release as much as he could from the report within the parameters of the special counsel regulations.

But, first, Mr Barr and his staff will have to review the report to determine whether any information is classified or otherwise sensitive, or protected by privacy laws or executive privilege, which can be invoked for sensitive materials.

The back and forth on what information Congress can and cannot have will most likely be drawn out and have to be resolved by a court.

Will Congress be satisfied with a bare-bones report?

No. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has already called for the entire report, without redactions, to be provided to politicians.

“Regulations governing special counsel Mueller’s investigation do not prohibit attorney general Barr from disclosing Mueller’s final report and investigative materials to Congress,” Ms Feinstein said in February. And the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for the report to be made public - a largely symbolic move to pressure Mr Barr publicly to release it.

Democrats in the House have already made the case that seeing the report in its entirety is critical to their ability to conduct oversight and determine whether to move forward with impeachment proceedings.

“Congress could be the only institution currently situated to act on evidence of the president’s misconduct,” the chairmen of several House committees wrote in a February 22nd letter to Mr Barr. Further, they wrote, Congress should decide what should be redacted in the report.

The sun sets on the US Capitol on Friday. US members of Congress are unlikely to be satisfied is all they receive is the bare bones of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.
The sun sets on the US Capitol on Friday. US members of Congress are unlikely to be satisfied is all they receive is the bare bones of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California has said that she does not support impeaching Mr Trump without support from Republican lawmakers because it is too divisive for the country. Barring new shocking revelations about him, Democrats would prefer to beat Mr Trump in the 2020 presidential election.

What if the administration rejects Congress’ requests?

Lawmakers have a few options to try to make public details of the investigation, though some could involve years of litigation. They could start issuing subpoenas to Mr Barr, who could ignore them or refuse them. They could also subpoena Mr Mueller’s testimony. The Justice Department is likely to resist those demands. If that happens, politicians could hold them in contempt and ask the US attorney for the District of Columbia to prosecute. The politicians could also sue to try to force the Trump administration to hand over the requested material. Such litigation could go on for years.

The White House could also try to negotiate with Congress, such as making some witnesses available, but not all, said Richard H. Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University Law School. The White House is also likely to challenge some requests and assert that the requested information is available through other means.

Politicians can also use their bully pulpits to pressure Mr Barr publicly for more information and tie up the Justice Department in hearings and subpoena fights that last for the rest of Mr Trump’s time in office.

Will the president even see the report?

That is not clear. Mr Trump is Mr Barr’s boss, and there is nothing to stop the attorney general from immediately sharing the report with the White House, Mr Pildes said. But doing so would violate the Justice Department’s long-standing independence from the White House, said Jack L. Goldsmith, a Harvard Law professor who ran the department’s office of legal counsel during the George W. Bush administration.

And if the Mueller report includes grand jury testimony, which is protected under federal law, the number of people permitted to see the report shrinks significantly. Mr Trump, as president, would be permitted to see it in certain circumstances.

For example, according to a 1993 opinion by the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel, grand-jury information may be disclosed to the president if it relates to his role in helping the department decide how to enforce the law, or if it relates to a national security threat.

In another Justice Department legal opinion, written in 2000, the president may have access to grand jury material if it is used as part of his consideration for a pardon. There has been a great deal of discussion about whether Mr Trump would give presidential pardons to his former aides who have been charged in Mr Mueller’s investigation, such as Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman who was sentenced to 7½ years in prison in two cases.

Special counsel Robert Mueller departs after briefing the US House Intelligence Committee on his investigation of potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. File photograph: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters.
Special counsel Robert Mueller departs after briefing the US House Intelligence Committee on his investigation of potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. File photograph: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters.

What if Trump tweets inaccuracies about the findings?

Even if Mr Mueller and Mr Barr know that what Mr Trump is saying publicly is not true, there is no apparent legal duty for the Justice Department to correct the president.

Will this be the final word on ‘collusion’?

Unlikely. First, collusion has no legal definition, though it has become a term of shorthand reference to the Russia investigation. A key question in the special counsel investigation concerns whether Mr Trump or his campaign was coordinating with Russia to try to affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. If Mr Mueller’s investigation ends without charging Mr Trump or his aides with conspiracy, some may interpret that to be a “no collusion” finding.

Mr Trump consistently cites government officials and the lack of collusion charges as evidence that there was never collusion between his campaign and Russia. - New York Times