Special counsel Robert Mueller has finished his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and turned over his final report to Attorney General William Barr.
In a letter to lawmakers Friday afternoon, Barr said he might be ready to share Mueller’s “principal conclusions” with Congress “as soon as this weekend,” and a Justice Department official said that information may be made public. But it’s unclear how much of Mueller’s full work the public will see – or when it will be released.
Here are the looming questions:
Was there a conspiracy to collude?
In the court of public opinion, this is the ball game. Prosecutors crafted a mosaic of how collusion could have played out. But if Mueller stops short of producing a smoking gun, President Donald Trump is sure to declare all-out victory and claim total vindication.
Of course, the reality is more nuanced. Court filings and news reports have already established that senior Trump associates were eager to accept assistance from, or share sensitive election data with, the Russians. It’s the second half of the equation that is still shrouded in mystery.
Mueller’s team has left a trail of breadcrumbs suggesting that if there was collusion with the Russians, then Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort may have played a key role. Trump and Manafort deny any collusion, and in dozens of public filings, Mueller never produced any evidence implicating them in collusion. But prosecutors repeatedly alleged that Manafort worked for free, was desperate for cash, and tried to monetize his position with influential oligarchs.
In addition, Mueller laid out how Trump acolyte Roger Stone sought information from WikiLeaks with prodding from Trump’s campaign, as to when the website would release politically damaging documents. Those documents were stolen by Russian government hackers. But Mueller never accused Stone of directly working in cahoots with WikiLeaks or the Russians.
Trump’s ex-attorney Michael Cohen recently testified on Capitol Hill that he witnessed Stone and Trump discussing WikiLeaks in summer 2016. During a gripping daylong hearing, Cohen also described how he and Trump pursued a massive business deal with a Russian company during the campaign. Mueller’s team has suggested that this could be a motive for collusion, outlining in court filings how the deal would have enriched Trump with Russian help.
If there was collusion, and it rose to the level of criminality, it’s safe to assume that Mueller would have brought indictments. The Russia investigation is now over, and nobody in Trump’s orbit was charged with conspiring with the Russian government. A Justice Department official told CNN on Friday that no additional indictments are coming from the Mueller investigation.
But Mueller could have also found things resembling collusion that aren’t prosecutable. Federal rules require Mueller to provide the attorney general with a report explaining why he did not bring charges against people who were under investigation. It’s up to Barr to decide how much should become public, but hopefully the report gives a definitive answer to the question of collusion.
Why didn’t Mueller interview Trump in person?
Another element of the unfolding Russia drama was the on-again, off-again dance between Mueller’s team and Trump’s lawyers regarding the President’s testimony. Trump provided Mueller with written responses about his 2016 campaign, but nothing that happened after Election Day, viewing the transition and his time in office as subject to executive privilege.
With the investigation over, it appears that Trump’s lawyers succeeded in staving off an in-person interview.
Trump’s lawyers knew their client regularly strays from the truth and sometimes flat-out lies. So, preventing an interview was tantamount to preventing perjury.
Mueller could have subpoenaed Trump, though this would have carried risks of its own, like a lengthy court battle ending with a ruling in Trump’s favor. Mueller might have found ways to get what he needed from other witnesses. Or perhaps he was ultimately swayed by Trump’s lawyers that they cooperated so extensively that a sit-down interview wouldn’t add much value.
If Mueller was deterred by the Justice Department from seeking a subpoena, a notification must go to Congress. Special counsel regulations require the attorney general to inform Congress if any prosecutorial steps were prevented from going forward. That is something to look for.
What will the public see of Mueller’s report?
During his confirmation hearing in January, Barr pledged to “provide as much transparency as I can” when it comes to the Russia investigation. His comments satisfied Republicans, who control the Senate and confirmed him with ease to lead the Justice Department.
But Barr left plenty of wiggle room in his testimony, and there isn’t anything in the special counsel regulations that requires Barr to release the full report to the public. Democrats have drawn a line in the sand, demanding more promises from Barr and total transparency.
There is no indication that Barr is in the mood to cave to Democratic complaints. But his hands could be tied if Democrats subpoena the report or invite Mueller for a public hearing. A potential lawsuit by House Democrats could trigger lengthy court battles around the report. California Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, recently said all these options are on the table. In this respect, the “end” is only the beginning.
Were there even more contacts with Russians?
After the election, Trump’s team maintained that there were zero contacts between the campaign and Russians. It didn’t take long for this story to completely fall apart. Since then, at least 16 Trump associates have been identified as having contacts with Russians during the campaign or transition. There were dozens and dozens of Trump-Russia contacts.
That list of 16 includes senior people from Trump’s campaign, senior Trump administration officials, members of Trump’s family, and people who were part of Trump’s trusted inner circle.
Stunningly, we’re still learning about some of these contacts. It was only a few weeks ago when we learned that Manafort shared internal campaign polls with one of his Russian associates, Konstantin Kilimnik, who is suspected by the FBI of having active ties to Russian intelligence.
The lie of “no contacts” was debunked a long time ago. Perhaps there are even more contacts between Trump-world and Russia that will be revealed for the first time in Mueller’s report.
Did Trump or anyone else obstruct justice?
The saying goes, “the cover-up is worse than the crime.” That could be true once more.
Obstruction can be a lot of things. Already, members of Trump’s inner circle pleaded guilty to witness tampering, lying to the FBI and misleading congressional investigators. Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and testified to lawmakers that he did so at Trump’s direction, though Trump didn’t explicitly use those words. Prosecutors say these actions by Cohen and former Trump campaign aides impeded the Russia investigation time and time again.
Many of Trump’s detractors already think he is guilty of obstruction. They point to his firing of FBI Director James Comey, his role in misleading the public about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, attempts to remove Mueller from his post, relentless public attacks against witnesses, and more.
Whether this meets the legal threshold of obstruction is up to Mueller. But even then, Justice Department rules say a sitting president cannot be indicted. And unlike independent counsel Ken Starr’s investigation of President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, it isn’t Mueller’s job to tee up impeachment in Congress.
House Democrats, however, are ready to pick up where Mueller leaves off. The Democratic chair of the House Judiciary Committee said recently he believes it’s already “very clear” that Trump obstructed justice.
Are there more big lies that will be exposed?
Lies are a major theme of this two-year saga. Time after time, Trump and his allies have changed their stories, spread false information or been forced to disavow past comments. Six Trump associates have been accused by Mueller’s team of lying about their Russian ties.
Regardless of the legal implications, Mueller might have uncovered more lies as he interviewed dozens of witnesses. And it’s possible some of those revelations could be in his final report.
For instance, even some of the most stalwart Trump supporters have cast doubt on Donald Trump Jr.’s testimony that he never told his father about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting. And Cohen publicly testified that he witnessed a June 2016 conversation between Trump and Trump Jr. that he believes was about the Trump Tower meeting.
Others found it hard to believe that Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos didn’t tell anyone on the campaign that he was tipped off about the Russians having damaging Hillary Clinton emails. (Papadopoulos has told CNN he “can’t guarantee” that it never came up.)
Then there was the controversial move by Trump campaign staff to block language in the Republican party platform at their 2016 convention about arming Ukraine to counter Russia. At the time, Manafort and Trump denied any involvement, despite Manafort’s extensive ties to Ukrainian interests. Since then, Mueller asked witness about this situation, and reportedly wanted to ask Trump about it too.