The Chaos That Could Come with the Mueller Report
Perhaps more than anything, many Americans must want a conclusion to the deep existential uncertainty surrounding the Presidency of Donald Trump. Will Trump be brought down by the investigation of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, or by the multiple interlocking inquiries into criminal conduct by the Trump Organization? Or will he survive, somehow stronger, and even win a second term? Behind these immediate uncertainties is another, even more unbearable question: Is our nation healthy or dying? Will we eventually be able to move forward from Trump’s Presidency, satisfied that justice has been achieved?
That uncertainty will not end tomorrow, or next week, or whatever day Mueller submits his desperately awaited report to the Attorney General, William Barr. Though this report has achieved something like mythological status as a deus ex machina of the Trump Presidency, its formal submission to the Department of Justice will only begin a process that could, if anything, be more confusing and chaotic than much of what has come before.
Of course, the delivery of the Mueller report will be a crucial moment in American politics. The President, Congress, the media, and the country have been stuck in the pre-report phase for close to two years, and it will be a relief just to move into the next one, even as it creates entirely new anxieties. For months, there have been rumors about the timing of Mueller’s report, but this week’s chatter has taken on a new certainty. Andrew Weissmann, the member of Mueller’s team who is considered most capable of turning witnesses, is stepping down. Reporters who have sat out the frenzy of Mueller predictions have, this week, become engaged, passing on word from their Justice Department sources that Mueller’s report will come in hours or days, not weeks or months.
Neal Katyal, President Barack Obama’s Solicitor General, who drafted the Department of Justice special-counsel regulations, in 1999, warned, in a Times Op-Ed last month, that Mueller’s report is unlikely to have the heft or shocking details of Kenneth Starr’s. Instead, Katyal expects Mueller to issue a report that is in line with the regulations, which call for no more than a concise summary of the special counsel’s findings and allow for the document to be kept confidential. That said, Katyal has also observed, on Twitter, that the Attorney General is required to produce a second report for Congress that explains each of Mueller’s actions and inactions. From the outset, then, there will be, at minimum, two reports.
There could easily be more. Attorney General Barr is not required to release the report that he receives from Mueller or the Justice Department’s views of any potentially illegal actions that the Mueller documents reveal. Members of Congress are free to issue their own reports about what they have learned, and some may release whatever they receive soon after they receive it. It seems highly possible that, instead of one text that addresses all of our questions, there will be multiple secondhand reports, of varying levels of trustworthiness, that will interact with our overwhelmed and fractured media and political system to spread more, not less, confusion. The greatest test of our democracy may be what happens next.