The Memo: Mueller report won’t end Trump’s legal woes

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump calls Sri Lankan prime minister following church bombings Ex-Trump lawyer: Mueller knew Trump had to call investigation a 'witch hunt' for 'political reasons' The biggest challenge from the Mueller Report depends on the vigilance of everyone MORE will not be out of legal peril even after special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE delivers his final report — especially given that investigations by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York (SDNY), among others, are pressing in on him. 

Legal experts who spoke to The Hill stressed the importance of the New York investigation in particular, which encompasses scrutiny of everything from apparent hush money payments to women to the funding of the president’s 2017 inauguration.

“Trump is not out of the woods and I think the SDNY proceedings are the most dangerous for both him and for members of his immediate family,” said Mark Zaid, a D.C.-based attorney who has represented clients from both major parties. “There is still a lot to be concerned about.”

While it is widely expected that Mueller’s probe is drawing to a close, a Department of Justice official on Friday pushed back on earlier reports that the special counsel’s final report was only days away. The report will not be delivered in the next week, the official told The Hill.

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Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellCory Booker has a problem in 2020: Kamala Harris 2020 Democrats commemorate 20-year anniversary of Columbine shooting Hillicon Valley: House Dems subpoena full Mueller report | DOJ pushes back at 'premature' subpoena | Dems reject offer to view report with fewer redactions | Trump camp runs Facebook ads about Mueller report | Uber gets B for self-driving cars MORE (D-Calif.) in a brief interview with The Hill warned that Mueller should not finish his probe because of outside political pressure.

“Is it done because he says it’s done or because of pressure from the attorney general or the White House?” he asked.

Mueller and his team have played their cards close to their chest, which means that — for all the column inches and airtime devoted to his work — no one has any firm idea of how he might summarize his findings.

Some politically catastrophic outcome for Trump is plausible — but so too is a report that will be pedestrian enough to leave his opponents deflated.

Trump allies are expressing some level of confidence that, absent any truly damning information, the completion of the probe will allow the president to get out from under the dark cloud that has hung over most of his presidency.

“If you actually follow what people on the left think, they truly believe Mueller is going to find proof of collusion, and roll up the president and his family in an indictment,” a former Trump administration official said. “Their base has extremely high expectations for what is going to come out.”

On Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that “our focus is not on the Mueller report, but it’s on doing our jobs. It is on focusing on the things that Americans care about.”

Trump, in a Twitter post on Friday, approvingly quoted the words of Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrGOP senator: 'No problem' with Mueller testifying Collins backs having Mueller testify Graham says he's 'not interested' in Mueller testifying MORE (R-N.C.), who said he had found no evidence of collusion.

“The Witch Hunt, so bad for our Country, must end!” Trump added.

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Despite Trump’s near-constant attacks on the Mueller probe, it has resulted in indictments or guilty pleas from 34 people. 

Among those who have pleaded guilty are Trump's former campaign chairman Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortIt is wrong to say 'no collusion' The Hill's Morning Report - Is impeachment back on the table? Nadler: I don't understand why Mueller didn't charge Donald Trump Jr., others in Trump Tower meeting MORE (who was also convicted in a jury trial on other charges); Manafort’s deputy Richard Gates; Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn; his former foreign policy adviser George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosGeorge Papadopoulos urges Barr to investigate examples of 'spying' while he was campaign aide Ten post-Mueller questions that could turn the tables on Russia collusion investigators Rand Paul blocks resolution calling for release of Mueller report MORE; and his former lawyer Michael Cohen, whose case has been transferred to the SDNY.

One issue of particular interest to legal experts is how Mueller will lay out his reasons for declining to prosecute particular people — up to and including the president himself.

Michael Zeldin, a CNN legal analyst, said, “We don’t know if he’s going to say ‘we declined because we lacked specific evidence,’ or ‘we declined because the guy did nothing wrong,’ or 'because the Office of Legal Counsel prevents us from indicting him' — or ‘we are going to pass this over to Congress to investigate from an abuse of office standpoint.’ ”

Even if the worst of those scenarios from Trump’s standpoint unfolds, however, there is no guarantee of grave action against him — as is acknowledged even by observers with no great love for the president.

“The report may be more damaging than anything similar about any other president,” said Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general under President Clinton. “But, to date, between the indifference of his base and the absolute torpor of the Republican leadership, there has been a pretty big appetite to swallow outrageous deeds on his part.”

That’s one reason why the other investigations are likely to claim more of the spotlight over time. 

On Friday afternoon, The New York Times reported that Cohen had offered “information about possible irregularities within the president’s family business and about a donor to the inaugural committee.”

Such revelations fuel an existing sense among some in Trump’s circle that the New York probe poses perhaps the greatest peril to him, because it seems to have the broadest remit in going after his past business dealings.

In addition, the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia are alleging that Trump violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, and the attorney general of New York state has signaled a broad willingness to pursue him as well.

Another case is being brought by Summer Zervos, who alleges that Trump defamed her when he accused her of lying in 2016 for alleging he had groped her a decade before. 

“There are many investigations that lead back to the president,” Zeldin said. “Mueller may completely exculpate the president but that doesn’t mean that all these collateral investigations don’t move forward."

Democratic-led congressional investigations will likely proceed on their own track. 

Those could be politically embarrassing for Trump associates, but they also pose some risk for the opposition party. 

If Democrats are seen as overreaching, they could play into Trump’s argument that the process is nakedly political.

“By definition it is a partisan effort — on both sides,” said Sol Wisenberg, who served as deputy independent counsel to Kenneth Starr during the investigations into Clinton. “I think there is a strong chance they can overplay their hand.”

The former Trump administration official insisted that Mueller’s findings would color how voters — at least those who are not outright partisans — view any other investigations.

“Democrats are always going to have their base, who Rachel Maddow can convince of anything. But when you are talking about a normal person, who isn’t either a staunch Republican or a staunch Democrat, they are looking to the Mueller report to see if this Russia stuff is bullshit or if there is any bit of truth to it,” the source said

Swalwell, however, drew another point of comparison — the efforts by Republicans to keep the probe into 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonIt is wrong to say 'no collusion' 10 factors making Russia election interference the most enduring scandal of the Obama era And the winner of the Robert Mueller Sweepstakes is — Vladimir Putin MORE’s emails alive long after it had been decided that she would face no criminal prosecution.

“If it was good enough for them, I would expect that our Republican colleagues would agree, in a bipartisan way, that it would be good enough for us,” he said, referring to Democratic efforts to keep investigating Trump.

There’s also the question about whether the public will see Mueller’s report in unexpurgated form. Attorney General William Barr was circumspect about this during his recent confirmation hearings.

Swalwell said that if there was any attempt to keep parts of the report from Congress “we feel like we are on solid legal ground to subpoena every word of it.”

The Memo is a report column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.