After months of declaring he was “eager” to talk to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and notably doing everything but talking to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Donald Trump agreed in September to answer questions from Mueller’s team in writing. Though even that took a lot of negotiation, and Trump made it clear he wouldn’t talk about obstruction, not in any format. But even though Trump has had more than two months, he hasn’t turned in the answers to his questions. Which makes CNN’s report that Mueller has begun drafting the final version of his report somewhat problematic.
All signs point to an investigation that is winding down, though Mueller hasn’t provided any timeline for completing his work.
The idea that the Mueller investigation is “winding down” suggests that it’s all over but some final grumbling, but that is far from true.
Much of the visible activity surrounding the Mueller investigation over the last few weeks has centered on Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone, his connections with both Russia and WikiLeaks, and his apparently endless series of lies about his levels of contact and access. But there’s been no indictment of Stone at this point. There’s been no indictment of Donald Trump Jr. for lying under oath concerning the Trump Tower meeting and the cover-up of that meeting. There’s been no indictment of Republican consultant Aaron Nevins for knowingly conspiring with Russian hackers to maximize their impact on the election. There’s been no indictment of anyone connected to Cambridge Analytica, despite a plethora of evidence that they were using both stolen social media information and working directly to support Russian efforts.
There’s been no visible result from the cooperating testimony of Paul Manafort, which Mueller considered so important that it was taken in closed hearing on the same day as Manafort’s plea deal. There’s been nothing resulting from the cooperating testimony of George Papadopoulos. And nothing at all from the testimony of Michael Flynn—testimony that was considered so valuable that it excused Flynn from potential charges that ranged from illegally acting as a foreign agent right up to attempted kidnapping.
The indictments that have been issued so far are just the tip of an iceberg. Robert Mueller may be “winding down,” but he’s unlikely to leave the stage quietly.
One area that Whitaker expressly stated as “off limits” in an anti-Mueller editorial was Trump’s finances. Earlier, Rod Rosenstein gave the special counsel’s office explicit permission to expand their investigation into Paul Manafort’s finances, including his connections with Russian oligarchs and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine and how money from Russia and elsewhere had been used as part of a real estate-based money laundering scam. Everything that Manafort did in his money-laundering scheme is small potatoes compared to the decades of such arrangements engaged in by Trump. Whitaker has made it clear that he, like Trump, would remove any review of Trump’s financial activities from the table.
Trump is supposedly “reviewing” his written answers before handing them over to Mueller, but with Matthew Whitaker taking control of the investigation, it’s not clear whether Trump will ever actually hand over his paperwork. Whitaker could order Mueller to finish, or bury, his report with or without any documents from Trump. And Whitaker may already have closed down any inquiry into Trump’s finances, or ordered Mueller to wrap it up, or … there is absolutely no way to know.
One thing is clear, despite taking the fast trip from Iowa has-been to acting attorney general entirely based on his willingness to destroy the Mueller investigation, Whitaker has absolutely no intention of recusing himself from supervision of the Mueller investigation. As the Washington Post reports:
On Thursday, two people close to Whitaker said he has no intention of taking himself off the Russia case.
Ethics officials at the Justice Department are likely to review his past work to see if he has any financial or personal conflicts. In many instances, that office does not require a Justice Department official to recuse, but suggests a course of action. In the past, senior Justice Department officials tend to follow such advice, but they are rarely required to do so, according to officials familiar with the process.
And even if they did “require it” … they couldn’t actually require it. As the acting attorney general, Whitaker has a free hand to ignore their suggestions.
It’s not clear that Robert Mueller has actually begun any “final report.” But it’s clear that if he has, it covers only one small part of a very large collection of crimes. And it absolutely will not be the final word.
Even after Mueller completes his work, Tuesday’s midterm election results mean that House Democrats will also be in a position to expand investigations of Trump. That means Mueller will not be the end of Russia-related questions of Trump and his campaign.