US on edge for Russia probe findings on Trump

AFP
March 25,2019

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WASHINGTON: The US public and Washington´s deeply divided political class on Sunday faced another day of anxiously waiting to learn if the key findings of the Russian meddling probe will implicate President Donald Trump in serious wrongdoing.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted the confidential final report on his 22-month investigation Friday and Attorney General Bill Barr has been studying the document, which he must summarize for Congress.

The Justice Department had told legislators that Barr would not be sending an outline of its "principal conclusions" -- expected over the weekend -- on Saturday, according to US media. That left the American public still in the dark over what the Mueller investigation uncovered about the president´s ties to Russia and alleged acts of obstruction of justice.

Chronic tweeter Trump, who was spending the weekend at his Palm Beach, Florida Mar-a-Lago residence, remained uncommonly silent after spending two years repeatedly labeling Special Counsel Robert Mueller´s investigation an illegal witch hunt.

After the president spent the morning golfing, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley confirmed that they still had not seen the report or been briefed on its findings. Asked how the president felt, Gidley replied: "He's good."

Meanwhile, Democrats in Congress, many of whom are hoping for evidence to support a presidential impeachment, pressed hard to ensure the report´s full contents are made public, and not just a summary prepared by the Trump-appointed Barr.

Neal Katyal, the former Justice Department official who drafted the rules for special counsels, said Barr had no excuse for keeping Mueller's report secret. "Absolutely nothing in the law or the regulations prevents the report from becoming public," Katyal said in a Washington Post opinion piece.

The secret report was handed to Barr on Friday with the announcement that no new indictments were forthcoming. That produced sighs of relief from the White House, where members of Trump´s family -- Don Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner in particular -- had been feared possible targets of the probe.

For Trump himself, Mueller was prevented by longstanding Justice Department policy from indicting the president. But his report could still outline criminal behavior by Trump that could be the basis for an impeachment effort.

Mueller, a 74-year-old veteran criminal prosecutor and former FBI chief, investigated whether members of Trump's campaign colluded with Russians to skew the 2016 election. In addition, he studied whether actions by Trump, including the May 2017 firing of FBI director James Comey, amounted to criminal obstruction of justice.

At the end of the probe, he was required to produce to Barr a confidential report that explained why he decided to indict or not indict subjects of the probe. Barr must summarize the report for Congress. He said in a letter to congressional leaders Friday that he is "committed to as much transparency as possible."

However, the special counsel regulations "give Barr lots of discretion about what to disclose," said Andrew Coan, a University of Arizona law professor. "The selective release of exculpatory material is a possibility worth watching for," Coan warned.

Analysts cautioned about reaching any conclusions, saying nothing is yet known about the form or length of the report. "The president should wait before popping the champagne corks over this and tweeting in triumph," Benjamin Wittes, a prominent Washington legal analyst, wrote on the Lawfare website.

Mueller indicted 34 individuals during the probe, among them six Trump associates, including his former national security advisor Mike Flynn, his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Five of the six have pleaded guilty to the charges against them. Court filings in those cases painted a broad picture of a cohesive Russian effort via hacking and social media manipulation to swing the election in Trump's favor against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The investigation has revealed scores of contacts between the campaign and Russians, with members of the team readily talking to the Russians about obtaining dirt on Clinton. Hours before Barr's announcement, Trump repeated his accusation that the entire investigation was a hoax and questioned Mueller's credentials for investigating him. But Mueller, who was director of the FBI for 12 years, has the respect and support of Democrats and Republicans alike as a straight-shooting, disciplined and fair investigator.


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