One of the dominant stories in the two-year presidency of Donald Trump moves into a new phase Thursday with the public release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations of election collusion and obstruction of justice.
Attorney General William Barr commented about Mueller’s report at a morning news conference, with copies being sent a short time later to Congress and then posted online.
Congress and the American people will for the first time see for themselves in detail what Mueller examined as he and his team of federal investigators worked to determine whether Trump’s campaign or its associates worked with Russia in its efforts to interfere with the 2016 election that brought Trump to power.
U.S. intelligence agencies in early 2017 assessed that Russia, at the direction of President Vladimir Putin, carried out a campaign to undermine the vote and had a clear preference for Trump to win.
People familiar with the 400-page Mueller report who spoke to the The Washington Post and The New York Times said the document released Thursday will be lightly redacted and go into great detail about the various allegations of Trump obstructing the federal investigation into Russia’s election-related activities.
Barr has released a short letter with his summary of Mueller’s findings, most notably that Trump’s campaign did not collude with Russia and that in Barr’s opinion the information from Mueller did not show enough to support charges the president obstructed justice.
The Mueller report would have been scrutinized in great detail even without Barr’s letter, but many will be looking to see how his conclusions appear when compared to the more complete underlying information that will be available to the public.
Congressional Democrats are expected to use subpoena powers to demand the full report. House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler said Wednesday that assuming the report is heavily redacted, his committee would “most certainly” issue subpoenas “in very short order.”
Barr will be joined at his news conference by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who for much of the Mueller investigation was the one overseeing the probe at the Department of Justice. No one from Mueller’s team will take part in the briefing.
Trump said Wednesday he was considering holding his own news conference Thursday. Speaking on The Larry O’Connor Show on the local radio station WMAL, Trump said, “You’ll see a lot of very strong things come out tomorrow. Attorney General Barr is going to be giving a news conference. Maybe I’ll do one after that; we’ll see.”
‘Spinning the report’
Nadler and the heads of key House committees strongly objected to the way the report’s release is being handled, saying Barr’s media appearance is “unnecessary and inappropriate, and appears designed to shape public perceptions of the report before anyone can read it.”
They called for Barr to cancel his news conference. But Georgia Congressman Doug Collins, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, defended Barr, accusing Democrats of “trying to spin the report.”
In addition, The New York Times reported Barr consulted with White House lawyers in recent days about the report, which helped Trump’s legal team in its preparations to respond to the release.
Nadler, along with the heads of the House intelligence, oversight, financial services and foreign affairs committees, said in a letter, “There is no legitimate reason for the department to brief the White House prior to providing Congress a copy of the report.”
“These new actions by the attorney general reinforce our concern that he is acting to protect President Trump,” they wrote.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the attorney general had “thrown out his credibility” with a “single-minded effort to protect” Trump.
“The American people deserve the truth, not a sanitized version of the Mueller Report approved by the Trump Admin,” she said on Twitter.
This is not the end
Whatever Congress and the public learn Thursday, the issues covered in the report are certain to endure in U.S. political discourse in the short term, with Barr scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 1, followed by an appearance at the House Judiciary Committee the next day.
Nadler has also said he will "probably find it useful'' to call Mueller and his team to testify before his committee. Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer issued a statement early Thursday calling for that to happen.
"We believe the only way to begin restoring public trust in the handling of the Special Counsel's investigation is for Special Counsel Mueller himself to provide public testimony in the House and Senate as soon as possible. The American people deserve to hear the truth," the Democratic leaders said.
Looking to the longer term, it is highly unlikely the investigation will fade to irrelevance before the next presidential election in November 2020.
In one measure of public demand for the information, several publishers are offering people the ability to purchase printed copies of the report, and pre-orders alone on Amazon’s website ranked among the site’s top 100 in book sales before the report was even released.
What have long been public are the legal ramifications of Mueller’s probe.
Trump associates in jail
Some of the closest figures in Trump’s orbit pleaded guilty or were convicted of a range of offenses, often for lying about their contacts with Russian operatives during the 2016 campaign or just before he took office in January 2017.
Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his contacts with Russia’s then-ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, just before Trump assumed power, and is awaiting sentencing. A low-level foreign affairs adviser, George Papadopoulos, was jailed for 12 days after he pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his Russia contacts.
Trump 2016 campaign chairman Paul Manafort is in the early stages of a 7½-year prison term after being convicted and pleading guilty in two cases linked to financial corruption from his years of lobbying for pro-Russian interests in Ukraine.
Rick Gates, a business associate of Manafort’s and his deputy on the Trump campaign, was a key witness against Manafort at his trial, after pleading guilty to conspiring with him in financial wrongdoing from their years as lobbyists for Ukraine. He is awaiting sentencing.
Trump’s one-time personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to helping Trump make $280,000 in hush money payments to two women, an adult film actress and a Playboy model, to keep them quiet before the 2016 election about alleged decade-old sexual encounters they claimed to have had with Trump. Cohen, headed soon to prison for a three-year term, also admitted lying to Congress about the extent of Trump’s efforts during the 2016 campaign to build a Trump skyscraper in Moscow, a time when candidate Trump was telling voters he had ended his Russian business ventures.
Long-time Trump adviser and friend Roger Stone is awaiting trial on charges that he lied to Congress about his contacts with the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks in conjunction with the release of emails hacked by Russian operatives from the computers of Democratic officials that were damaging to Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton.
In addition, Mueller also charged 13 Russian nationals with trying to influence the 2016 election by tricking Americans into following fake social media accounts with material favorable to Trump and against Clinton. Another dozen Russian military intelligence officers were charged with the theft of the emails from the Democratic officials. None of the Russians is ever likely to face a trial in the U.S. because the two countries do not have an extradition treaty.