The debate over making special counsel Robert Mueller’s report is rapidly heating up and may soon come to a boil.
There is some evidence that Mueller may finish his investigation soon, and while most Americans and members of Congress want to see the probe’s results, not everyone agrees that this is required, or even a good idea.
The issue of Mueller’s final report being made public was at the center Attorney General nominee Bill Barr’s confirmation hearing last week. Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed him during the hearing to make a firm commitment to release it publicly once he receives it (assuming he is confirmed and becomes Attorney General.)
When it is released, the report is expected to set forth in detail evidence concerning Russian interference in the 2016 election and coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
One thing we don’t know is the exact form of the report, its length or what exactly it will contain. Some experts believe that the special counsel may give a very detailed report to the Attorney General, but release a shorter “executive summary” to the public which does not contain classified information.
Barr told senators on Tuesday that it was his “intent” to release as much about Mueller’s findings as he can “consistent with the law.” He did not make a formal promise to release the report to the public, however.
“My goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law,” Barr said during his testimony. “I can assure you that, where judgments are to be made, I will make those judgments based solely on the law and I will not let personal, political, or other improper interests influence my decision.”
Justice Department guidelines call for a special counsel to send a confidential report to the attorney general “explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached” in the course of his or her investigation. But the guidelines do not require the report to be made public, or even given to Congress. It is up to the attorney general to decide whether it is in the public interest to release the report.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the committee’s top Democrat, said her vote on Barr’s nomination hinges on whether he will release the report publicly.
“My vote really depends on whether I believe that that report will come out as written,” Feinstein said. “I served for a long time on the Intelligence Committee, and I know redaction can be excessive.”
Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) dismissed the concerns of Democrats about Barr’s answers.
“The regulation says the report was to be created truly as if it was a recommendation by the criminal disposition,” Graham said to reporters after Barr’s hearing. “A prosecutor goes and talks to his boss, you don’t go talk about it in public. His goal is to get as much information out there as possible about the Mueller report.”
Legal experts say whatever Mueller produces will likely be scrubbed to conceal sensitive national security information.
“He’ll have to decide what is national security information, what would disclose sources and methods, for example,” said Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor with the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington, D.C..
Mueller’s investigation has gone on over 22 months, and during that entire time the president has criticized and belittled the special counsel’s efforts.
Trump has fumed over the investigation as a partisan “witch hunt” and consistently denied collusion between his campaign and the Russian government. Issuing the report may be the final act in the Trump vs. Mueller battle, and Trump may direct his Attorney General to keep the report private, and safely out of public view.
Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani recently said that the president’s lawyers should be allowed to “correct” it, which caused an outcry from Democrats.
An attempt by the White House to block the report’s release to the public will set up a fight with congressional Democrats. They now have subpoena and oversight powers after capturing the House majority in November. House Judiciary Chairman Jerrod Nadler (D-N.Y.) has said that he will subpoena the report if he has to.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff ( D-Calif.) had this to say on the matter: “I think the report should be made public with only minimal redactions for national security.”
The debate in Washington has been about what the report will say about whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Moscow to interfere in the election, and what the president knew about any nefarious activity that occurred.
Mueller has remained mostly quiet in the 20 months since his appointment, but court filings have offered some clues about his evidence and lines of inquiry in the sprawling probe. He has issued over 30 indictments and obtained numerous guilty pleas and several convictions in court.
The controversy over the report will continue to hang over Barr’s confirmation process. Senators on the Judiciary Committee have until Jan. 22 to submit additional questions to him, and Graham is expected to schedule a vote on his nomination thereafter. Committee rules allow for the vote on a nomination to be delayed a week once it is scheduled, meaning it could be weeks before Barr’s nomination goes to the full Senate for a vote.
Meanwhile, Mueller’s investigation is pressing on. In a filing in Manafort’s case last week, Mueller asked to file documents under seal because they related to “ongoing law enforcement investigations or uncharged individuals” – raising the possibility more could be charged in the special counsel probe or other investigations.
Nobody knows when Mueller will issue report, and while we’re waiting he may change everything by issuing more explosive indictments, including possibly indictments against the president’s children. An investigation by the FBI into Trump working for Russia may even continue after the special counsel‘s work is done.
One thing is certain: the debate over what to do with his final report will rage on in Washington and cast a shadow over the Trump presidency.