How It Might All End

Ken AshfordL'Affaire Russe, Trump & AdministrationLeave a Comment

I’m on the record as not believing the Mueller investigation is coming to an end next week or soon thereafter, but all the media is telling me I am wrong.

So assuming I am wrong, let’s look at what happens next, if anything. Wired laid out seven scenarios:

1. Mueller sends the attorney general a simple “declination letter,” telling Bill Barr that he’s concluded his work as special counsel, the related grand jury has charged all identified crimes worthy of prosecution, and that there are no further cases to come. In some ways, a letter this simple—which itself would represent a stunning anticlimax to the most politically charged investigation in modern American history—would be the most “Mueller-like,” an understated and quiet end to the probe by a man who has always preferred to let his work speak for itself. If Mueller stops here, with no further meaty comment or additional charges, his probe will still rank as one of the most significant and eye-opening counterintelligence probes in American history—even though it would have failed to identify any direct “collusion” between Trump and Russia.

2. Mueller compiles a detailed “roadmap,” providing Congress with an annotated bibliography or index of sorts outlining impeachment-worthy presidential “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes and others pried out of the National Archives the analogous document that the Watergate special prosecutor created to help Congress charge President Nixon, a detailed guide to evidence and grand jury testimony that could inform an impeachment trial. This might be the most compelling conclusion for Mueller if he’s abiding by the Justice Department policy that the sitting president can’t be indicted but he has identified criminal behavior by the president himself. It may be similarly attractive if Mueller has found compromising actions by the president that fall short of a chargeable federal crime but that nonetheless represent political behavior or collusion that a healthy democracy cannot abide in its leaders or candidates.

3. Mueller authors a detailed novelistic narrative, akin to what the 9/11 Commission wrote or what Ken Starr authoredat the conclusion of his Whitewater hearing, a document that could stretch to hundreds of pages and provide in rich, narrative detail—with footnotes aplenty—the be-all and end-all story of the Russian attack on the 2016 election and the role that Trump associates may or may not have played in helping it. While this document is most similar to what many Americans have long believed the “Mueller Report” would look like, in some ways this seems the least likely outcome simply because it’s the most sweeping, which would go against Mueller’s inherent instincts.

4. He offers both a final round of “his” indictments as well as a detailed report like #2 or #3. Mueller’s existing court filings point to the idea that he’s considering or building toward a final overarching conspiracy indictment, one that connects Americans to the Russian attack on the election—either via WikiLeaks, Russian intelligence asset Konstantin Kilimnik, or other avenues. If this is the final outcome, it’s possible that Mueller has already told us precisely what he’s doing. After all, last summer’s GRU indictment began with the charge that “GRU officers … knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other, and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury (collectively the “Conspirators”), to gain unauthorized access (to “hack”) into the computers of U.S. persons and entities involved in the 2016 US presidential election, steal documents from those computers, and stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election.” That language could easily encompass Americans who participated, and since both the GRU indictment and the IRA indictment are “conspiracy” cases, Mueller could wrap up by simply filling in some more of those “persons known … to the Grand Jury,” e.g., Americans who participated in the plot.

5. He offers a report, but not the report, something more akin to a progress report rather than a single, definitive one. This scenario could also include multiple reports—concerning perhaps not just the Russian probe but broader investigations into foreign influence in Washington. The Daily Beast hinted in December that Mueller was preparing a special report on Middle Eastern influence in the 2016 election, which might or might not be separate from the question of Russian influence in the campaign. This progress report could also announce that’s he finished investigating the “Big Question” (e.g., Russia’s role in the 2016 election) but that he intends to continue sorting through ancillary matters—like, for instance, the Roger Stone case, the House witness transcripts, or the foreign mystery defendant—for perhaps months or even years.

6. He closes up shop but refers numerous active cases to other prosecutors—similarly ensuring that his probe lives on for years to come. Again, this could be because he feels like he’s answered his main charge—Russia—even though he’s uncovered much ancillary criminality. Schiff has begun hinting in recent weeks that he feels Mueller has been too narrow in his investigation, and that he intends to dive deep into Trump World’s money laundering and past business deals. The special counsel construct and mission was never perfect—and Mueller, if the Ray Rice case is a guide, may indeed have interpreted his charge narrowly, leaving big and worthy questions to be examined by prosecutors in DC, New York, Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere. The US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and counterparts in DC and Virginia, have already picked up at least half a dozen ancillary cases among them.

7. Mueller unseals one or more long-standing sealed indictments. The media and bloggers have regularly tracked the abnormally large number of sealed indictments filed over the last year in DC federal court, the jurisdiction where Mueller has been worked, including 14 added between August and November—a period where Mueller was theoretically “quiet” around the midterm election—and four recent sealed indictment that seemed to parallel the Stone indictment. Whether any relatee to Mueller remains to be seen, but in some ways the idea of piling up sealed indictments would have been the smartest way for Mueller to ensure that if he was fired, his case lived on.

I have already put my lot behind Scenario 5, but we’ll see.