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Debate builds over making Mueller report public
Anticipation is building for special counsel Robert Mueller's report, bringing to boil a debate over whether it will also be made public.
The report took center stage at attorney general nominee William Barr's confirmation hearing last week, where Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee pressed him to commit to releasing it publicly.
It's far from clear how close Mueller is to ending his investigation; the former FBI director has shown no signs of concluding his investigation.
At the same time, there is a growing sense in Washington that a probe that has captivated the political world for most of the past two years is wrapping up.
The report is expected to lay out Mueller's findings about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow. It remains unclear what shape the report will take or what, if any, conclusions it will draw.
Barr told lawmakers Tuesday it was his "intent" to release as much about Mueller's findings as he can consistent with the law, but he was careful not to pledge to release the report outright.
"My goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law," Barr told lawmakers. "I can assure you that, where judgments are to be made, I will make those judgments based solely on the law and I will not let personal, political or other improper interests influence my decision."
Justice Department guidelines call for a special counsel to send a confidential report to the attorney general "explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached" in the course of his or her investigation. Ultimately, it is up to the attorney general to decide whether it is in the public interest to release the report in compliance with the relevant legal restrictions, the guidelines say.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the committee's top Democrat, said her vote on Barr's nomination hinges on whether he will release the report publicly.
"My vote really depends on whether I believe that that report will come out as written," Feinstein said. "I served for a long time on the Intelligence Committee, and I know redaction can be excessive."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) dismissed concerns about Barr's answers, noting the regulations don't call for the report to be public.
"The regulation says the report was to be created truly as if it was a recommendation by the criminal disposition," Graham told reporters after Barr's confirmation hearing. "A prosecutor goes and talks to his boss, you don't go talk about it in public. His goal is to get as much information out there as possible about the Mueller report."
Legal experts say whatever Mueller produces will likely be scrubbed to conceal sensitive national security information.
"He'll have to decide what is national security information, what would disclose sources and methods, for example," said Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor with the U.S. attorney's office in D.C. He said the report would need to be redacted to conceal details that could compromise national security.
The Justice Department is also likely to scrub any public report of grand jury information, though Kirschner noted that there are "vehicles" that prosecutors can use to ask the chief judge for permission to release grand jury materials if it is in the public interest.
Mueller's report will be the final act in a months-long battle with the White House. Trump has seethed over the investigation as a partisan "witch hunt" and consistently denied collusion between his campaign and the Russian government.
Reports have suggested the White House might look to suppress the report. Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani recently told The Hill that the president's lawyers should be allowed to "correct" it - a remark he has since walked back.
"I don't want to change the report. I want to respond to the report," Giuliani told CNN last week. "I have no control over what Mueller is going to say. Let him say whatever he wants."
Any effort by the White House or administration to block the report's release is sure to set up a fight with congressional Democrats, who are now equipped with subpoena and oversight powers after capturing the House majority in November. Some, including House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrod Nadler (D-N.Y.), have insisted they would subpoena the report if necessary.
"I think the report should be made public with only minimal redactions for national security," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told The Hill on Thursday.
Much of the debate in Washington has centered on what the report will say about whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Moscow to interfere in the election, and what the president knew about any nefarious activity that occurred. Mueller has indicted more than two dozen Russians linked to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and a plot to use social media to influence U.S. politics, but he has not charged any Americans with crimes related to a conspiracy to meddle in the election.
In a rare statement late Friday, Mueller's office disputed a bombshell BuzzFeed News report that investigators have evidence that Trump directed Michael Cohen, his former personal attorney, to lie to Congress about plans to build a Trump property in Moscow during the 2016 campaign. The report, which had not been confirmed by other outlets, had riled up Democrats hungry to launch investigations into the president.
Mueller has obtained guilty pleas from several Trump associates who have become cooperating witnesses in the investigation, including Cohen and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Mueller has remained quiet in the 20 months since his appointment, but court filings have offered some clues about his evidence and lines of inquiry in the sprawling probe.
In recommending a lenient sentence for Flynn, Mueller revealed he had provided valuable "firsthand" information, including details about the "content and context" of interactions between members of the presidential transition team and the Kremlin.
Attorneys for former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort inadvertently revealed in a filing this month that Mueller had accused him of sharing polling data related to the campaign with a Russian business associate suspected of ties to Kremlin intelligence.
Mueller is also said to be investigating whether the president obstructed the probe, which could be addressed in his final documentation.
The report is likely to continue to hang over Barr's confirmation process. Senators on the Judiciary Committee have until Tuesday to submit additional questions to him, and Graham is expected to schedule a vote on his nomination thereafter. Committee rules allow for the vote on a nomination to be delayed a week once it is scheduled, meaning it could be weeks before Barr's nomination goes to the full Senate for a vote.
Meanwhile, Mueller's investigation is pressing on. In a filing in Manafort's case last week, Mueller asked to file documents under seal because they related to "ongoing law enforcement investigations or uncharged individuals" - raising the possibility more could be charged in the special counsel probe or other investigations.
"With the heavy redactions in the Manafort filing, there is still, it seems to me, so much to be done," Kirschner, the former prosecutor, said.
Jordain Carney and Jacqueline Thomsen contributed.