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Mueller Report: What Comes Next?

U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump (composite file photo)
U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump (composite file photo)

For months across the United States, lawmakers, activists, journalists, average Americans, and most of all, President Donald Trump, have been waiting anxiously to learn about the outcome of the most politically explosive criminal investigation in a generation.

On March 22, Special Counsel Robert Mueller signaled the end of his nearly two-year probe, submitting a final report to the head of the Justice Department, Attorney General William Barr.

For the moment, it’s unknown what the report contains.

It could signal new indictments will be forthcoming, though some initial media reports said that didn’t appear likely.

It could lay out a road map of findings indicating that Trump and his closest associates sought to collude with Russian officials to sway the 2016 presidential election campaign.

It could accuse Trump of trying to obstruct an ongoing FBI investigation by firing then-Director James Comey in May 2017 -- an event that led to Mueller's appointment.

It could make oblique mentions of actions taken by individuals that may not amount to crimes but lay the groundwork for future cases or investigations by Congress.

Or it may contain none of these things.

Regardless, though, the findings of the Mueller report will play a big part in determining the fate of the next two years of Trump’s administration, and whether he seeks reelection.

Here’s a quick look at what comes next.

Barr Decision

The law governing Mueller's work was clear on one point: He was required to submit a final report to the Justice Department at the conclusion of his investigation, something that Barr confirmed had happened on March 22.

The law, and Justice Department regulations, were less clear on how much of that report should be made public.

In his hearings earlier this year before the Senate on whether he should be confirmed as attorney general, Barr gave a careful answer to questions about his position on sharing the report publicly.

"I...believe it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the special counsel's work. My goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law," he told senators.

But there’s a lot of room for interpretation in that statement.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr during his confirmation hearing in January.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr during his confirmation hearing in January.

Barr was also asked about so-called "declination decisions," where Mueller may explain why he and his team chose not to prosecute a person. Mere mention of a person's name in such a report could be damaging politically, or even lay the groundwork for Congress to take up an investigation.

"As the rules stand now, the rules I think say the special counsel will prepare a summary report on any prosecutive or declination decisions, and that shall be confidential and be treated as any other declination or prosecutive material within the department," he said.

In the letter released by the Justice Department, Barr wrote that he would meet with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Mueller "to determine what other information from the report can be released to Congress and the public consistent with the law."

Will There Be More Indictments?

Since taking over the already existing FBI probe in May 2017, Mueller and his team have brought charges against more than three dozen individuals and entities, including Trump's former campaign chairman, Trump’s first national-security adviser, and lower-level campaign officials -- not to mention a dozen agents from the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU.

For the moment, it’s too early to tell whether the end of Mueller's work will include the release of more indictments. Not long after the report was transmitted to the Justice Department, The New York Times, CNN, and other media quoted a Justice official as saying the report did not contain any new indictments, though there was no official confirmation of that.

Mueller has also been investigating whether Trump tried to obstruct justice when he fired FBI Director Comey in May 2017 -- an act that led to Mueller’s appointment. Trump and his lawyer have argued that as president, he has wide authority to hire and fire cabinet officials; some legal experts have said that if Trump fired Comey specifically to stop him from investigating Trump, that would be a felony.

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It's also possible that Mueller has already laid the legal groundwork for other prosecutions in other locations, which would continue on even though Mueller has ended his own work. Mueller's earlier efforts, for example, led to the U.S. attorney for Manhattan charging Trump's longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, with various financial crimes. Cohen ultimately pleaded guilty in exchange for his help with other investigations.

And some legal experts have pointed to mysterious, sealed filings in various court jurisdictions as possibly an indication that Mueller has already left behind indictments to be revealed at a later date, though there's been no confirmation of that.

Then there are the state investigations. In New York state, where Trump’s main corporation is headquartered, law enforcement agencies and regulators have already opened investigations into Trump’s business practices and those of his charitable foundation. Those probes will continue regardless of Mueller’s work.

What About Congress?

After taking control of the House of Representatives in November, congressional Democrats signaled they intended to be far more aggressive in their investigations of the Trump administration on the Russia question, as well as other matters.

At least three House committees have already started summoning witnesses and subpoenaing documents.

Though the question of how much of the report will be released publicly may largely lay with Barr and the Justice Department, the House of Representatives sent a strong bipartisan signal earlier this month when it voted unanimously -- 420-to-0 -- to demand the report be publicly available.

And later on March 22, after the Barr letter confirming receipt of the report was published, the two top Democrats in Congress -- House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer -- declared that it was "imperative" to make it public.

“The American people have a right to the truth,” they said in a joint statement.

"We want the full report, we want it now. We want it before the president is able to make any edits," Representative Eric Swalwell, a Democrat, said on CNN.

The Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, meanwhile, said he welcomed the announcement that Mueller had completed his investigation.

"Many Republicans have long believed that Russia poses a significant threat to American interests," McConnell said in a statement. "I hope the Special Counsel's report will help inform and improve our efforts to protect our democracy."

Meantime, a sizable number of House Democrats have openly called for the beginning of impeachment hearings against Trump, something that Pelosi has sought to tamp down.

Don't Forget About Trump

Trump has derided Mueller's investigation as a "witch hunt" from its very earliest days, insisting that there was no collusion by him with Russian officials. He has lashed out at members of Mueller's team, insinuating political misdeeds. He excoriated Barr’s predecessor, Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from oversight of Mueller early, resulting in Rosenstein taking charge.

And he's lambasted Comey, the FBI director who was in charge of the investigation that was well under way by May 2017. Trump ultimately fired Comey, and gave a series of conflicting explanations why.

The first immediate White House reaction to the report’s submission, from spokeswoman Sarah Sanders, was restrained: "The next steps are up to Attorney General Barr, and we look forward to the process taking its course," she said.

Barr is ultimately responsible to Trump as president, and some observers have raised the possibility that Trump administration officials may try to claim executive privilege to keep any damning elements in the report from going public.

Depending on how that plays out, it could set up a series of major constitutional battles that could even go all the way to the Supreme Court, which would be forced to decide the scope of presidential power versus congressional authority.

Don’t forget: The next U.S. presidential election is next year.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.