US Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Friday turned over his long-awaited final report on the contentious Russia investigation that has cast a dark shadow over Donald Trump‘s presidency, entangled Trump’s family and resulted in criminal charges against some of the president’s closest associates.
The report, still confidential, marks the end of Mueller’s probe but sets the stage for big public fights to come. The next steps are up to Trump’s attorney general and Congress, as well as potentially the federal courts.
The Justice Department said Mueller delivered his final report to Attorney General William Barr and officially concluded his probe of Russian election interference and possible coordination with Trump associates.
Mueller had been examining since 2017 whether Trump’s campaign conspired with Moscow to try to influence the 2016 presidential election and whether the Republican president later unlawfully tried to obstruct his investigation.
Trump has denied collusion and obstruction, repeatedly calling the investigation a “witch-hunt”. Russia has denied election interference.
‘Let it come out, let people see it’
Barr released a letter on Friday noting his plans to write his own account of Mueller’s findings.
The White House released a statement saying it had not seen or been briefed on the document. Barr said he could release his account to Congress as soon as this weekend.
Next steps are “up to Attorney General Barr”, said White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
Trump said earlier this week that he does not mind if the public is allowed to see the report.
“Let it come out, let people see it,” Trump said. “Let’s see whether or not it’s legit,” he added.
The mere delivery of a confidential report set off immediate demands, including in the Democratic-led House of Representatives, for the full release of Mueller’s findings.
Barr, a Trump appointee, has said he wants to make it as much public as possible, and any efforts to withhold details will prompt a tussle between the Justice Department and politicians who may subpoena Mueller and his investigators to testify before Congress. Such a move by Democrats would likely be vigorously contested by the Trump administration.
The House voted 420-0 last week on a nonbinding resolution calling for Mueller’s report to be released both to Congress and to the public, but it is not clear how the measure will fare in the Senate.
With no details released at this point, it’s not known whether Mueller’s report answers the core questions of his investigation: Did Trump’s campaign collude with the Kremlin to sway the 2016 presidential election in favour of the celebrity businessman? Also, did Trump take steps later, including by firing his FBI director, to obstruct the probe?
But the delivery of the report does mean the investigation has concluded without any public charges of a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and Russia, or of obstruction by the president.
It’s unclear what steps Mueller will take if he uncovered what he believes to be criminal wrongdoing by Trump, in light of Justice Department legal opinions that have held that sitting presidents may not be indicted.
The conclusion of Mueller’s investigation does not remove legal peril for the president. Trump faces a separate Justice Department investigation in New York into hush money payments during the campaign to two women who say they had sex with him years before the election.
He has also been implicated in a potential campaign finance violation by his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who says Trump asked him to arrange the transactions. Federal prosecutors, also in New York, have been investigating foreign contributions made to the president’s inaugural committee.
Thirty-four people charged
Mueller will not recommend any further indictments in the Russia investigation, the Associated Press news agency reported, citing a Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the person was not authorised to speak publicly about the confidential recommendation.
No matter the findings in Mueller’s report, however, the investigation has already illuminated Russia’s assault on the US political system, painted the Trump campaign as eager to exploit the release of hacked Democratic emails and exposed lies by Trump aides aimed at covering up their Russia-related contacts. Over the 21-month investigation, Mueller has brought charges against 34 people, including six aides and advisers to the president, and three companies.
The special counsel brought a sweeping indictment accusing Russian military intelligence officers of hacking Democrat presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign and other Democratic groups during the 2016 election. He charged another group of Russians with carrying out a large-scale social media disinformation campaign against the American political process that also sought to help Trump and hurt Clinton.
Closer to the president, Mueller secured convictions against a campaign chairman who cheated banks and dodged his taxes, a national security adviser who lied about his Russian contacts and a campaign aide who misled the FBI about his knowledge of stolen emails.
Cohen, the president’s former lawyer, pleaded guilty in New York to campaign finance violations arising from the hush money payments and in the Mueller probe to lying to Congress about a Moscow real estate deal. Another Trump confidant, Roger Stone, is awaiting trial on charges that he lied about his pursuit of Russian-hacked emails ultimately released by WikiLeaks. It’s unclear whether any of the aides who have been convicted, all of whom have pleaded guilty and cooperated with the investigators, might angle for a pardon. Trump has left open the idea of pardons.
Along the way, Trump lawyers and advisers repeatedly evolved their public defences to deal with the onslaught of allegations from the investigation. Where once Trump and his aides had maintained that there were no connections between the campaign and Russia, by the end of the probe, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani was routinely making the argument that even if the two sides did collude, it was not necessarily a crime. The goalpost shifting reflected the administration’s challenge in adopting a singular narrative to fend off allegations.
Equally central to Mueller’s work is his inquiry into whether the president tried to obstruct the investigation. Since the special counsel’s appointment in May 2017, Trump has increasingly tried to undermine the probe by calling it a “witch-hunt” and repeatedly proclaiming there was “no collusion” with Russia. But Trump also took certain acts as president that caught Mueller’s attention and have been scrutinised for possible obstruction.
One week before Mueller’s appointment, Trump fired James Comey as FBI director, later saying he was thinking of “this Russia thing” at the time.
He strongly criticised then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing from the Russia investigation two months before Mueller was named special counsel, a move that left the president without a perceived loyalist atop the probe. And he helped draft a misleading statement on Air Force One as a Trump Tower meeting between his eldest son and a Kremlin-connected lawyer was about to become public.
The meeting itself became part of Mueller’s investigation, entangling Donald Trump Jr in the probe. Mueller’s team also interviewed the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, multiple times.
Even as Trump blasted Mueller’s team, the White House and the campaign produced thousands of documents for the special counsel, and dozens of his aides were interviewed. The president submitted written answers to Mueller regarding the Russia investigation, but he refused to be interviewed.
Mueller was appointed in May 2017 with widespread bipartisan backing in Congress, four months into Trump’s turbulent presidency. Mueller has previously held several senior positions in the Justice Department, including the FBI director.