(CNN) — On Monday afternoon, acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker gave us a surprising window into special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“I’ve been fully briefed on the investigation and, you know, I look forward to Director Mueller delivering the final report,” said Whitaker. “But right now, you know, the investigation is — I think, close to being completed. And I hope that we can get the report from Director Mueller as soon as we — as possible.”
OK, there’s definitely some wiggle room there — “I think” and “I hope” — but the big takeaway is this: The top law enforcement officer in the country just said that he has been “fully briefed” on Mueller’s investigation and that he thinks it is “close to being completed.” It’s not definitive, of course, but it’s the clearest sign yet we’ve had from someone in a position to know that Mueller is in the final stages of the probe.
Given that there’s every reason to think that Whitaker is in a position to know where the Mueller investigation stands, it’s worth trying to game out — as best as we can — when the report could drop.
Before we do that, here’s where we’ve been on this whole thing.
Mueller was appointed special counsel in the Russia probe by deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on May 18, 2017. That was 621 days ago — 20 months. In terms of special counsel investigations, that’s not a very long time. The Iran-Contra investigation in the 1980s went on for more than six years, as did the Whitewater probe.
Over those 20 months, Mueller and his team have brought 199 criminal charges against 37 people and entities. Seven people have pleaded guilty to crimes uncovered by Mueller. Four have been sentenced to prison time. One — former campaign chairman Paul Manafort — has been found guilty by a jury.
The latest development in the investigation came last Friday, when longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone was arrested and charged with lying to Congress about his interactions with WikiLeaks during the summer of 2016, when that organization was releasing emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta by the Russians.
Which brings us back around to the (educated) guessing game about where, exactly, Mueller is in the course of his investigation. Stone — and his interactions with WikiLeaks — had long been a subject of interest to Mueller. Many people wondered why he hadn’t been charged or why some sort of plea agreement had not been worked out with him in the mold of Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen and a handful of other top Trump aides.
Stone’s arrest was seen by some, therefore, as the end of the investigation — or close to it. If Mueller had his eye on bigger fish, the argument went, he would have worked to flip Stone, not arrested him.
And/but, this news broke at CNN on Monday night:
“A defense attorney for Andrew Miller, who’s fighting a subpoena from Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, learned Monday afternoon that the special counsel still wants witness testimony for a federal grand jury.”
Miller is a former Stone employee — and if Mueller still wants testimony from Miller, it would suggest this whole thing isn’t going to be over in the next week.
Speaking of next week, let’s dig deeper into when the report could drop. Here’s a few factors to consider:
- Next week seems very unlikely, given that President Donald Trump is scheduled to deliver his delayed “State of the Union” address on February 5.
- The earliest a confirmation vote for William Barr, Trump’s attorney general nominee, could happen is mid-February. Rosenstein has said previously that he is leaving his post but won’t do so until the Mueller investigation is close to being done and/or when he feels as though it can’t be potentially interfered with. Presumably, that would be when the permanent replacement for dismissed Attorney General Jeff Sessions is in place.
- If Mueller wants to deliver the report when Congress is in session — which you would assume he does — then the week of February 18-22 is out, since the House isn’t in session.
To be clear: With the 2018 election now in the rear-view mirror, it’s not totally clear that Mueller feels as though he needs to be constrained any external events. He may just release the report when he feels it’s ready. But you don’t spend a decade as the head of the FBI and even longer as a member of the Washington political class without understanding the importance of this report. Timing matters — especially when you are dealing with a President who seems set on using anything at his disposal to discredit the findings.
Mueller has been very smart to date in how information about the investigation has been revealed. He’s not going to abandon that strategic approach now.
If I’m betting, I would circle the first two weeks in March (or, maybe, even the last week of February) for the report to land.
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