Doubtful Mueller report ‘close to being completed’
By HARRY LITMAN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: January 30, 2019
Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said Monday that he has been “fully briefed” on the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller and that Mueller’s probe into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign is “close to being completed.”
As the official overseeing Mueller’s work, he should know.
But I doubt it.
The number of loose ends that remain in Mueller’s investigation — some of which could take months to tie up — simply appears inconsistent with Whitaker’s prediction.
For example, Roger Stone, flashing a 50-year-old Nixon “V for victory” gesture, proclaimed, “I intend to fight for my life” after his indictment Friday and on Tuesday pleaded not guilty on all counts. The 66-year-old dirty trickster’s bravado may or may not dry up once he is looking down the barrel at hard jail time. But if he holds to his resolve, it augurs a jury trial that will extend into the fall.
Then there are the open issues set out in Stone’s indictment, which is pregnant with the possibility of substantive follow-up charges. Mueller’s narrative alleges communications from the highest level of the Trump campaign pushing Stone to shake loose information from WikiLeaks; from Stone back to the campaign detailing what he had learned about the damaging emails WikiLeaks was holding; and from Stone to an associate (Jerome Corsi) instructing him to procure certain parts of the WikiLeaks crop.
Each of these lines of communication is suggestive of a possible conspiracy involving the Trump campaign and Stone in an effort to procure and disseminate emails they knew to have been stolen from the Clinton campaign.
And with Stone’s arrest and the searches of his residences in Florida and New York, Mueller may have a rich harvest of information in Stone’s emails and texts.
Mueller, along with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, is also investigating possible crimes involving Trump’s inauguration. Mueller is looking into the possible angle of illegal foreign conduct (especially donations), while the Southern District focuses on the inaugural committee’s spending and potential pay-to-play improprieties.
Speaking of the Southern District, it and the New York attorney general do not appear near the finish line of their probes into The Trump Organization and Trump Foundation, as well as a welter of questionable tax and other financial matters involving Michael Cohen and Trump dating back to at least 2015.
If Mueller wants to wrap up soon, it’s conceivable that he could hand off large chunks of unfinished work to other U.S. attorney’s offices. But Mueller’s sense of duty runs deep, and it is hard to see him passing the baton before he has come to judgment — and produced a report — on all the conduct covered by his commission, namely any coordination between the Russian government and the Trump presidential campaign.
Then there is the really big game almost surely being tracked by Mueller’s team (not necessarily as targets — i.e., likely defendants — but at a minimum as subjects of investigation): Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and, possibly, Ivanka Trump. Of these, Trump Jr. could be imperiled for, among other things, problematic statements to Congress. Why would the special counsel bring false-statements cases against Cohen and Stone but give the president’s oldest son a pass?
Kushner, meanwhile, is in a tight spot for his involvement in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting intended to get dirt on Hillary Clinton, and he pops up in several other Russia-related episodes. And even Ivanka Trump could face possible exposure for what we now know to be her prominent role in the Moscow Trump Tower project. Mueller surely understands that charges against any of the Trump children would provoke a kind of Armageddon with the president — as well as a likely extended court battle. It makes sense to forestall that upheaval until he is ready to lay all his cards down.
By the same reasoning, it can’t be ruled out that Mueller will still move to subpoena Trump, a maneuver that would trigger a several-month court battle that Mueller probably would win.
There’s considerably more in plain view, including a hush-hush meeting in the Seychelles between Blackwater founder and Trump donor Erik Prince and the head of Russian’s sovereign wealth fund that also involved the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates. Was the meeting designed to forge covert communications with Russia? If Mueller is pulling on that string, there’s no telling how much could unravel. And a number of witnesses who have testified or given in-depth interviews to Mueller have still not figured prominently in indictments to date.
And finally, always remember Mueller Rule No. 1: We don’t know what Mueller knows, and he speaks only through public filings. That leaves an indefinite margin for sealed indictments; known persons or companies of interest whose full role remains unclear to us (Carter Page, Deutsche Bank); and surely some figures whose role in Mueller’s work has been entirely shielded from public view.
Put these all together and Whitaker’s forecast looks shaky. The probe’s completion is more likely to come in a matter of months — maybe many months — than weeks.
Harry Litman, a Washington Post contributing columnist, is a former U.S. attorney and deputy assistant attorney general. He teaches constitutional law and national security law at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law and the University of California at San Diego Department of Political Science.