Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election may be over, but the two-year wait to find out what he and his team of investigators concluded is not. Beyond the initial reports that the special counsel has not recommended any additional indictments, the contents of the actual report, or whatever information the Justice Department and Congress ultimately allow the public to see, remain unknown and could come out at any moment — starting Sunday.
It also means that these final minutes, hours, or days are the last opportunity journalists, experts, pundits, partisans, and conspiracy theorists may ever have to engage in what has become both a loved and loathed pastime: speculation about the Mueller report.
Below is a continuously updated roundup highlighting the best and worst pre-report speculation, while it’s still possible to offer any:
The Mueller myth leaves us destined for disappointment.
At the Atlantic, Megan Garber worries about the impossible, often desperate expectations projected onto Mueller and his pending report:
Americans do not yet know what the report will share—or, indeed, whether Mueller’s findings will take the form of a published report, in the Starry sense of things, in the first place—but the chances of it offering conclusive findings about Individual 1 or his associates seem slimmer as time goes on. There have been subpoenas; there have been interviews; there have been arrests; there have been convictions. But the primary question—Did Donald Trump collude with Russia to win the presidency?—has not yet been answered, and it is unclear … whether it will be. The Mueller mystique lives on, however, both as a joke and as an earnest aspiration for what the report might ultimately achieve on behalf of American democracy. Alicia Barnett, of Kansas City, Kansas, explained her fandom to the Associated Press like this: “He gives me reassurance that all is not lost. I admire his mystique. I admire that I haven’t heard his voice. He is someone who can sift through all this mess and come up with a rationale that makes sense to everyone.”
Salvation and salve at the same time: Heroes, in times of tumult, offer reassurances of leadership, of order, of faith both earned and restored. Their very presence—the implied transcendence of their talents—soothes, and calms. All will be well, their myths assure. But even heroes, in an environment as partisan and divided as this one, have their limitations. Mueller’s determined reticence is, on top of everything else, ostensibly a matter of political strategy: an acknowledgment that whatever his team’s findings, a significant percentage of the American populace will simply refuse to believe those conclusions—on grounds of bias, and on grounds that one form of political faith trumps another. You could read the fan fictions that have been written about Mueller as attempts to inoculate him against those doubts: to insist that the hero, because he is not subject to the frailties that plague everyone else, also has unique access to truth. The “great man” theory of history, weaponized for the needs of the present moment.
In an America led by a man who has insisted that “I alone can fix it,” that makes for an uncomfortable argument. Mueller’s mythology treats him both as the embodiment of American democratic institutions and as someone who rises above them; it is a story whose center cannot hold.
The report will have teeth, but offer no slam dunk on collusion.
Longtime Russian investigation maven Marcy Wheeler offers “five mutually non-exclusive possibilities for the report”:
• Mueller ultimately found there was little fire behind the considerable amounts of smoke generated by Trump’s paranoia
• The report will be very damning — showing a great deal of corruption — which nevertheless doesn’t amount to criminal behavior
• Evidence that Manafort and Stone conspired with Russia to affect the election, but Mueller decided not to prosecute conspiracy itself because they’re both on the hook for the same prison sentence a conspiracy would net anyway, with far less evidentiary exposure
• There’s evidence that others entered into a conspiracy with Russia to affect the election, but that couldn’t be charged because of evidentiary reasons that include classification concerns and presidential prerogatives over foreign policy, pardons, and firing employees
• Mueller found strong evidence of a conspiracy with Russia, but Corsi, Manafort, and Stone’s lies (and Trump’s limited cooperation) prevented charging it
The no-new-indictments news is a trick and worst is yet to come (for Trump).
Former Obama administration and Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri threads some suspicions together on Twitter:
Few thoughts about pre-spinning an unreleased report from someone who knows how game is played. It’s easy to make such a report seem innocuous in abstract and with no indictments. It will feel worse for White House when we actually see report. [It] will recap all Mueller has discovered & indictments already filed. Consider for a second how that will look and feel when it’s laid out on its entirety.
Thirdly, the House will conduct hearings on report. I know first hand from Clinton White House experience how hard it is to stop Congress from impeaching a POTUS once hearings on a special counsel report starts.
I’m not prejudging report or saying House should definitely impeach, just saying once those hearings start — and considering how somber these hearings are likely to be given gravity of bad behavior we already know Mueller has found — the process can get very bad for Trump quickly.
Beware the coming oversimplification.
David Kris, a former assistant attorney general for national security in the Obama administration, predicts some gray area:
First, we are told no more indictments are coming (beyond the many already filed), but I bet the Mueller report will still include significant new derogatory information on the Trump inner circle and probably on the president himself.
My bet is that, despite this new derogatory information, Mueller declined to bring new indictments mainly for “prudential reasons.” Meaning, for example, that some key evidence cant be used because it’s classified (despite CIPA); or there are problems with witnesses or document provenance; or the evidence shows that guilt is very likely, but it isn’t quite proof beyond a reasonable doubt, etc.
If/when all or most of the facts come out, which is very likely, Trump critics will say Mueller was too cautious (I would not be surprised if some *within* SCO held that view), but in any event they will argue that the report makes out a clear case to impeach.
Trump defenders, I predict, will go with “no-indictment-no-collusion” and/or discover a newfound appreciation for DOJ traditions and the vital democracy-protecting prudential standards in the Justice Manual.
In the end, however, while it may not be as sexy as Russia, I predict that SDNY (or NYAG) will get him fair and square for campaign finance or other crimes.
The Mueller report doesn’t even matter.
Former George W. Bush speechwriter and current Atlantic hand David Frum argues that the Mueller report is a distraction, because everyone already knows the truth about Trump’s guilt:
For two years, Americans and the world have speculated and argued about the inquiry. But along the way, we have often lost sight of the core truth of the Trump presidency: For all its many dark secrets, there have never been any real mysteries about the Trump-Russia story. …
This ultra-legalistic nation expects wrongdoing to take the form of prosecutable crimes—and justice to occur in a courtroom. But many wrongs are not crimes. And many things that are crimes are not prosecutable for one reason or another—for instance, when a statute of limitations expires.
Mueller served his country by advancing the inquiry into Trump-Russia at a time when Trump’s enablers in Congress sought to cover up for the president. Since the midterm elections, Congress has regained its independence and can recover its integrity. Mueller’s full report will surely inform and enlighten Americans about many details of what exactly happened in 2016. But the lack of further indictments by Mueller underscores that the job of protecting the country against the Russia-compromised Trump presidency belongs to Congress. It always did.
Mueller may get the final word, however.
Brookings’ Susan Hennessey cautions against assuming that House Democrats will uncover anything Mueller couldn’t:
Congressional investigations will now look at lots of questions Mueller didn’t. But to the extent Congress tries to answer for itself questions that Mueller investigated and came up empty, it is extremely unlikely to get closer to the truth than he did. The executive branch has more powerful tools and are just better investigators. Mueller is only going to answer a limited set of questions, but his conclusions should be treated as basically final. Even if he says “We couldn’t find an answer to X” odds are Congress can’t either.
She later explains what she’s waiting to find out:
Special counsels won’t solve our problems and reports don’t win elections.
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg thinks the real problem — how good people could vote for someone like Trump — can’t be solved with “procedural matters,” and that it’s a bad idea to “wait for some piece of evidence to come along” to convince them otherwise:
The larger lesson about crime and corruption we rarely see.
Law professor Tim Wu hopes more Americans have caught on:
A representative example of the prominent take among Trump’s allies and fans, from GOP spokeswoman Ronna McDaniel:
At the Washington Post, Aaron Blake tries to unravel whether or not “no collusion” accurately reflects the state of affairs, per what we know about the the report no one has read:
According to existing Justice Department guidelines, a sitting president cannot be indicted. The fact that Mueller isn’t indicting Trump tells us nothing about his conclusions about the president personally. But the fact that none of his campaign aides or advisers are going to be charged with conspiracy does suggest Trump won’t be accused.
Trump could still theoretically have collusion-related problems, particularly if (a) Trump directly colluded or (b) someone else colluded on his behalf but for some reason is not being charged with it. Perhaps they cooperated and got leniency, for example. Or perhaps Trump publicly asking Russia to steal more of Hillary Clinton’s emails could amount to collusion by itself. It’s possible, but it seems unlikely. …
Trump, to his strategic credit, kept the focus on “NO COLLUSION” throughout, perhaps knowing it was unlikely it would ever be proved and that the lack of proof could then be used to undermine whatever else Mueller finds on him. “They didn’t find collusion, so they looked for a bunch of other stuff” is already an argument the Trump team has been making. Given the intense focus on the topic, it’s important to emphasize how much Friday’s news indicates Trump was probably right — at least in Mueller’s eyes.
At Hot Air, Ed Morrissey pulls on the same thread:
It’s true that the DoJ has a policy against indicting a sitting president, but the lack of indictments for any other Trump-connected people alleging collusive or conspiratorial connections to Russia or even Wikileaks speak loudly. Others would have to be charged with that conduct for it to exist at all, but all Mueller has produced are indictments over past conduct (Rick Gates and Paul Manafort), process crimes related to lying to investigators on other issues, and some show charges against Russians that will never see the inside of a courtroom — and which also do not allege any collusion with Trump or the campaign.
The media has focused attention on what [CBS News legal analyst Jonathan] Turley calls the “collateral damage” indictments issued by Mueller in the course of his probe. However, none of those alleged anything close to the core of the Russia-collusion hypothesis that prompted a special-counsel investigation in the first place.
But the secret indictments!
Two weeks ago, head #resistance conspiracy theorist Louise Mensch published a stunning exclusive report that claimed “multiple sources with links to the intelligence communities of more than one five eyes nation, and to the Trump administration, report that Special Counsel Mueller is going to indict all three of Donald Trump’s oldest children along with Jared Kushner.”
And she’s not swayed by no-new-indictment news:
Own the fibs.
Now that no new indictments have apparently been included in the report that no one has yet read, Federalist senior editor Mollie Hemmingway thinks it’s time to retaliate, commenting Friday night on Fox News that:
“We have, for the last three years … frequently [witnessed] hysteria about treasonous collusion with Russia to steal the 2016 election,” Hemingway told the [Fox News] panel. “The fact [is] that there are no more indictments coming and the fact [is] that all of the indictments that we’ve seen thus far have been for process crimes or things unrelated to what we were told by so many people in the media was ‘treasonous collusion’ to steal the 2016 election.”
“If there is nothing there that matches what we’ve heard from the media for many years, there needs to be a reckoning and the people who spread this theory both inside and outside the government who were not critical and who did not behave appropriately need to be held accountable,” she added.
She wasn’t the only one looking for payback on Friday night, either:
Stop the madness.
Some Russiagate skeptics like Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald and others have been taking a victory lap this weekend. He believes the bubble is finally bursting and wonders what will happen to the true believers after that:
Mainstream Democrats’ discourse on Trump/Russia has been in InfoWars/Glenn-Beck-chalkboard territory for 2 years now when it comes to circulating reckless conspiracy theories. It may be only a matter of time before the End of Mueller pushes them into QAnon land.
He also wants journalists to hold themselves to account:
At least CNN and MSNBC had the decency last night to have a funereal tone. There were no admissions of wrongdoing, and it seemed more pained and coerced than voluntary, but at least it was the first step in the coping process. Down that path lies some salvation at least.
A bigger media failure than allowing the Iraq War?
An apoplectic Matt Tabibi calls Russiagate “a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media”:
There will be people protesting: the Mueller report doesn’t prove anything! What about the 37 indictments? The convictions? The Trump tower revelations? The lies! The meeting with Don, Jr.? The financial matters! There’s an ongoing grand jury investigation, and possible sealed indictments, and the House will still investigate, and… Stop. Just stop. Any journalist who goes there is making it worse. …
The biggest thing this affair has uncovered so far is Donald Trump paying off a porn star. That’s a hell of a long way from what this business was supposedly about at the beginning, and shame on any reporter who tries to pretend this isn’t so.
There was never real gray area here. Either Trump is a compromised foreign agent, or he isn’t. If he isn’t, news outlets once again swallowed a massive disinformation campaign, only this error is many orders of magnitude more stupid than any in the recent past, WMD included. Honest reporters like ABC’s Terry Moran understand: Mueller coming back empty-handed on collusion means a “reckoning for the media.”
Of course, there won’t be such a reckoning. (There never is). But there should be. We broke every written and unwritten rule in pursuit of this story, starting with the prohibition on reporting things we can’t confirm.
Prepare for a partisan 180 on Mueller.
On Friday, National Review writer Jonah Goldberg predicted changing tides in the public opinion about Mueller, depending on what the report says about Trump:
But we actually know nothing.
Benjamin Wittes, Lawfare editor and Mueller interpreter extraordinaire, suggests that all speculation is pointless without more information:
It’s possible, for example, that Mueller is not proceeding against certain defendants other than the president because he has referred them to other prosecutorial offices; some of these referrals are already public, and it’s reasonable to expect there may be other referrals too. In this iteration, what is ending here is not the investigation, merely the portion of the investigation Mueller chose to retain for himself. It’s possible also that Mueller is finished because he has determined that while the evidence would support a prosecution of the president, he is bound by the Justice Department’s long-standing position that the president is not amenable to criminal process. On the obstruction front, he may well have concluded that, while the president acted to obstruct the investigation, he cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the president’s obstructive acts were not exercises of Trump’s Article II powers. It’s also possible that Mueller has strong prudential reasons for not proceeding with otherwise viable cases.
My gut instinct is that it is some combination of these factors that explains the end of the probe. Without knowing the reasons the investigation is finished, it is impossible to know how to assess its end—and nobody should try.
And Mueller’s role is fundamentally misunderstood amid the political drama.
In a follow up post, Wittes emphasizes that the purpose of Mueller’s investigation and his report is not what almost everyone thinks it is:
What a criminal investigation can do, and what it may have done here, is to provide a text that offers a factual record which might be redeployed for purposes of answering non-criminal questions in addition to the criminal ones for which that record was created. This is the importance of the so-called Mueller report[.] …
Mueller’s report is likely geared not toward telling a story or answering non-criminal questions but toward fulfilling the purpose of the regulation—that is, explaining his prosecutorial decisions. Unless Mueller understands his role especially grandly, the report is likely not designed to fill the oversight shoes of Congress or to assist the legislature’s role in the impeachment process. Yet unless the report is particularly spare in factual detail, that will not stop politicians and commentators from redeploying it for all of sorts of other purposes.
This business of redeploying criminal investigative work product for purposes of history, for purposes of non-criminal accountability, for purposes of the public’s knowing the “truth” is dicey stuff.
The false dichotomy behind a Trump victory narrative.
White collar crime professor Randal Eliason tries to explain:
It’s wrong to claim that the end of the Mueller probe with no more indictments is a “win” for Trump. First, if Trump “won” it implies that Mueller “lost.” But white collar prosecutors don’t “lose” if they investigate and conclude charges are not justified.
Unlike in a violent crime or other case where it’s clear a crime has been committed and the question is who did it, in white collar it’s usually clear who did it and the prosecutor’s job is to determine whether it was a provable crime at all. Sometimes the answer is “no.” That doesn’t mean the prosecutor has “lost,” he/she has done the job exactly as required. If “winning” meant getting an indictment, that’s easy to do for a prosecutor with bad motives. Trump is lucky this investigation was done by a pro and not by a political hack.
The other problem with the “Trump won” narrative is the binary view that everything is either criminal or OK. There are lots of things that are deplorable and unacceptable but not criminal. The Mueller report may reveal many such things about Trump and his campaign. That may have dramatic political consequences for the president, even if it doesn’t have criminal ones. That hardly means that any such misconduct was OK.
At most, Trump can say he was vindicated, at least when it comes to allegations of criminal misconduct. But having widespread, non-criminal misconduct exposed — assuming that’s what the Mueller report does — is hardly a “win” for the president.
An inscription on the wall at DOJ says: “The United States wins its case whenever justice is done one of its citizens in the courts.” By that standard, I think we can be confident that Mueller, and the American people, “won”[.]
But the report still CHANGES EVERYTHING.
Donald Trump has been president for 792 days. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been on the job – investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and the possibility of collusion between the Russians and members of Trump’s campaign – for 675 days. … Mueller’s investigation, which has occupied 85% of Trump’s presidency, is now finished. We are likely to look back on Trump’s presidency – no matter what the report actually says – as “before Mueller report” and “after the Mueller report.”
But he also concludes that nothing really ends:
With the news that Mueller is done, Trump’s presidency as we have known it since, well, almost its first days, will begin to change. How will it change – and will that change be the beginning of the end for Trump or a new and more positive beginning?
It’s the speculation itself that needs to end.
Conservative pollster and “public opinion guru” Frank Luntz says enough is enough:
Or does it?
This post has been updated to include additional commentary.