The Slatest

It’s Plausible Mueller Will Drop the Biggest Bombshell Ever. It’s Also Plausible He’ll Do Nothing.

A brick wall between large windows with the words "Department of Justice" etched into it.
The Department of Justice in D.C. on Feb. 16, 2018. Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, CNN and NBC* reported that special counsel Robert Mueller may submit a final report about his investigation into Russia’s attack on the 2016 election to Attorney General William Barr as soon as next week. Outlets including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Wired have since put together well-informed posts about the chances that the full report will be released to the public and what the timing of its submission might mean regarding Mueller’s conclusions about whether Donald Trump’s campaign conspired with the Russian operatives who attacked his political opponent.

Having generally followed the special counsel’s investigation since its inception, and now having studied those posts and read several other news items, I can say with confidence that I have absolutely no idea whether we’ll see the Mueller Report, what it means that it’s being finished now, or whether Mueller will accuse Trump of being involved in a criminal conspiracy. And given that CNN—whose unsurpassed coverage of the investigation has involved actual physical surveillance of courthouses, subjects’ homes, and the special counsel’s office—isn’t making any claims about the report’s contents, it seems likely that no one else (in the media at least) knows anything either.

This is true in part because the special counsel’s office has kept information from leaking to reporters, but also because the publicly available information about Mueller’s investigation outlines a project that definitely could but won’t necessarily involve more indictments. Consider that both of the following possibilities, two poles at opposite ends of a very long continuum, are both eminently plausible given the wording of the special counsel statute, the mandate outlined by the Department of Justice when Mueller was appointed, and the evidence of Trump-Russia collaboration that’s already been reported on by the press or been made available in court.

The special counsel’s office doesn’t indict anyone else and the public never sees any of the report. The counsel statute requires that Mueller’s report to the attorney general explain his decisions to prosecute or not prosecute the individuals he’s investigated. The Department of Justice, for understandable reasons, customarily does not make public statements or issue information about people it has decided not to accuse of a crime. Mueller, meanwhile, has already secured convictions or indictments against three top Trump advisers—Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone. And while you could make a case that, given what we already know, the other major players—Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Trump himself—should face conspiracy charges (or unindicted co-conspirator status for Trump, since DOJ guidelines seem to preclude charging him while he’s in office), such a case would involve a lot of abstract dot-connecting. CNN reports, meanwhile, that the grand jury in D.C. that Mueller has worked with on previous indictments hasn’t met since Jan. 24.* If the special counsel has decided that he’s turned over every rock there is to turn over and still can’t make a criminal case against anyone that hasn’t yet been charged, Barr would have justification to keep the contents of a report that explained that decision private.

So, that could happen. Or:

The special counsel’s office indicts Don Jr. and Jared Kushner and submits a bombshell report doubling as a “map to impeachment” that Barr releases publicly. The special counsel’s recent court filings include references to “ongoing investigations” that don’t appear to correspond to any indictments yet filed. Relatedly (one assumes), the office has taken (or reportedly taken) testimony from figures whose accounts don’t seem to have been used yet in any significant way, with those figures including:

• Jerome Corsi (who was allegedly involved in Stone’s effort to find out about stolen emails from WikiLeaks)
• George Nader (a lobbyist who helped set up a meeting involving Russians and a Trump associate in January 2017)
• Michael Flynn (who did just, like, a lot of sleazy business and became a cooperating witness after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI)
• Felix Sater (who was involved in the effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow)

Any or all of this could figure into indictments of Don Jr. (who supervised the Trump Tower Moscow project and was the campaign’s point person at the infamous June 9, 2016, meeting with Russians who’d promised to share incriminating material about Hillary Clinton) or Kushner (who also attended the June 9 meeting and had more than one suspicious interaction with Russian figures during the presidential transition period). It could also implicate Trump Sr.—and Mueller is also known to have investigated whether the president may have committed obstruction of justice by, among other things, firing FBI Director James Comey.

Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski, meanwhile, set a precedent by preparing “road map” materials to be given to Congress for consideration in potential impeachment proceedings. Jaworski was appointed under different legal circumstances than Mueller, but Mueller’s mandate clearly authorizes him to investigate Trump if needed, and we can infer from the DOJ’s guidelines on presidential indictments that it considers impeachment the most constitutionally appropriate way to address any crimes a sitting president may have committed. So another “road map” isn’t out of the question—one that Barr would seem to have an obligation to release, given that the special counsel statute asks him to consider whether such a release would be “in the public interest.”

But, then again, as indicated above, maybe the special counsel’s office ultimately decided that the information gleaned from Corsi, Nader, et al. did not add up to evidence of a crime, or, if it did, it was a crime related to a peripheral issue that could be handed off to another DOJ office because it wasn’t directly related to Russia and the 2016 election. That, too, would be of a piece with the office’s previous behavior.

And, naturally, the report could fall anywhere between those two extremes on the newsworthiness scale. We just don’t know! And that’s what makes it so fun!

Correction, Feb. 22: This sentence originally misstated the day of NBC’s report.

Correction, Feb. 21: This sentence originally misstated the last date that the grand jury had met.