Editor’s Note: Josh Campbell is a CNN analyst covering national security issues. He previously served as a supervisory special agent with the FBI, special assistant to the bureau’s director, including Jim Comey, and is writing a book on recent attempts by elected officials to undermine the rule of law. Follow him on Twitter @joshscampbell. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller has accomplished precisely what those of us who once worked for him fully expected. Thrust into the national spotlight to investigate a presidential campaign, Mueller has ignored the Washington political noise and has allowed his work to speak for itself.
But with word his investigation is nearing its end, will we ever truly know if his team unearthed potentially damning revelations about the President?
If Mueller’s report fails to reach the Justice Department’s standards for prosecution, the answer may be no.
Put simply, for the findings of Mueller’s final report not to reach the public would be an affront to the American people.
The decision on what is released rests squarely with Attorney General William Barr. Regulations governing the special counsel indicate Mueller must provide a report to Barr, who then must notify Congress that the investigation has been completed. Barr has wide latitude in deciding how robust an accounting of Mueller’s work he wishes to provide congressional leaders. In theory, he could issue a one-sentence statement announcing the conclusion, if he so desired.
But such a move would be a travesty.
A provision in the law allows him to publicly release the Mueller report should he determine that doing so would be “in the public interest.” I can think of no other case in modern history that compares to the public interest surrounding Mueller’s Russia investigation. Although any classified information regarding sources and methods should be protected, everything else should be disclosed.
To be sure, the Justice Department has long operated under a custom that dictates prosecutors do not publicly discuss the details of investigations into people they choose not to criminally charge. However, there is an exception when officials conclude that the public’s right to know something outweighs individual privacy concerns.
Think back to July 2016 when my former boss, FBI Director James Comey, walked to the microphones and announced the bureau’s findings in the investigation of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He took heat from DOJ leadership for not consulting with them in advance and categorized some of Clinton’s behavior in a way he says he might have done differently now in hindsight, but what he was doing at the time was opting for transparency on a case of intense public interest.
The question Comey grappled with was: Does the public have a right to know what investigators found once the investigation was completed? This is precisely the same question we are now asking with the Mueller report.
Unlike President Trump, Clinton was a private citizen, but she was also a high-profile politician who was on the verge of possibly assuming the highest office in the land. The government should treat the Mueller report in the exact same way and provide the American people with a complete understanding of what the special counsel has been doing for nearly two years.
For their part, White House officials will likely cry foul and insist that publicly discussing an investigation that does not lead to charges against the president will violate his privacy. But this is nonsense. When a politician of either party projects themselves into the national spotlight and seeks to gain power, they surrender certain elements of their privacy. As our representatives, we the people deserve to know exactly what they’re doing.
Although I have steered clear of the prediction game, my background as an investigator and experience working up close with Robert Mueller leads me to believe he will not move against the President. DOJ custom has held that a sitting president cannot be indicted. I expect Mueller will closely adhere to these norms, lay out a compelling case for looking upon many of Trump’s actions as highly questionable, but then note the President’s position prevents his prosecution. It would then be up to Congress to decide what, if anything, happens next.
This is why releasing the report is so critical. If Mueller finds wrongdoing on the part of the President but opts not to charge him, there will be no prosecution. There will be no trial and no public record of the government’s evidence.
Absent a full accounting of Mueller’s work, the American people will forever be left in the dark about a case of intense public interest. If the President is innocent, he and his allies should welcome the bright shining light of transparency.