A visibly sweating acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said late on Monday that he was briefed on special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and that it is “close to being completed”, the first public indication by the government that the probe is drawing to a close.
Whitaker said the Russia investigation “is, I think, close to being completed, and I hope that we can get the report from Director Mueller as soon as possible.” Whitaker, who has previously critical of Mueller’s inquiry, made the remarks to reporters at a news conference related to charges against Chinese telecom company Huawei Technologies.
“I have been fully briefed on the investigation,” Whitaker said adding that “I look forward to Director Mueller delivering the final report.” The acting AG also said that “I am comfortable that the decisions that were made are going to be reviewed.” Whitaker didn’t elaborate, but a Justice Department official said later he sought to convey that he’d follow department regulations regarding Mueller’s closing documents.
The regulations require Mueller to provide the attorney general with “a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel” according to Bloomberg, which clarified that Whitaker meant to say he would look at the decisions, but has no intention to try to revisit or change Mueller’s decisions.
Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware said Whitaker’s statement that decisions made in the investigation would be reviewed is “chilling,” adding he doesn’t have confidence that Whitaker will respect the independence of Mueller’s probe.
“I hope to be pleasantly surprised that he is not attempting to interfere in any way with the Mueller investigation or slow or prevent release of his report, but one could draw those inferences,” Coons said.
Whitaker’s remarks shed some light on the status of the nearly two-year-old probe into whether Trump associates aided Russia’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election, which Trump has repeatedly called a “giant witch hunt”.
Whitaker’s comments came days after Mueller’s team obtained a seven-count indictment against longtime Trump political adviser Roger Stone, accusing him not of collusion with Russia but of lying to Congress to cover up his efforts to obtain and share with Trump campaign officials plans by WikiLeaks to publish emails Russian hackers stole from Democrats in 2016.
Earlier on Monday, Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, said he has been exploring whether Whitaker should remain in the Justice Department if Barr is confirmed in the coming weeks.
More notably, Barr told lawmakers that Justice Department standards may prevent him from releasing Mueller’s final report or allowing the president to be charged with a crime while in office. Barr provided written answers to follow-up questions from his confirmation hearing. His answers could result in more criticism from lawmakers who are seeking ironclad assurances that the public will get to read Mueller’s report.
Barr, who has also criticized aspects of the Mueller probe, has repeatedly said he would seek the guidance of ethics officials, but would decide on his own whether to recuse himself from the investigation.
Earlier on Monday, two Senate Judiciary panel members – Republican Chuck Grassley and Democrat Richard Blumenthal – said that they’re proposing legislation that would require Mueller’s report to be made available to the public and Congress when the investigation is complete. If the special counsel were fired or resigned, a public report would have to be released in two weeks.
With Mueller continuing to unspool his findings, issuing another indictment last week when Mueller arrested Trump’s longtime ally Roger Stone, accusing him of lying to Congress and obstructing a congressional inquiry, many speculate that Mueller’s case against Trump is complete, although a cynical take is that if indeed the Mueller report is almost out and nothing tangible has been leaked about an imminent Trump impeachment, then Mueller was unable to find anything with which to take down Trump.
The good news is that we will finally have a definitive answer some time in the next few weeks. As for casual observers, the outcome is a coin toss, with Trump’s impeachment probability during his first term currently at even odds, or 50c, according to PredictIt.