The Pre-Election Quiet Period Is Over for Robert Mueller

(Bloomberg) -- Special Counsel Robert Mueller, now freed from the constraints of his pre-election quiet period, must decide on the next steps in his high-profile investigation of Russian meddling and the role of President Donald Trump.

But Mueller still faces the prospect of a shake-up in the Justice Department’s leadership. Trump has signaled widely that he may replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and the fate of the man supervising Mueller’s probe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, also remains unclear.

With that possibility hanging over him, Mueller may feel extra pressure to complete his work as quickly as possible. A replacement for Sessions or Rosenstein could fire him or rein in the probe that Trump regularly denounces as a “witch hunt” fueled by anti-Trump sentiment in the Justice Department and the FBI.

In a tweet on Wednesday, Trump cited an exit poll conducted for television networks that showed 46 percent of voters disapproved of Mueller’s handling of the Russian investigation, compared with 41 percent who approved.

“You mean they are finally beginning to understand what a disgusting Witch Hunt, led by 17 Angry Democrats, is all about!” Trump said. The poll actually showed a strong partisan divide, with 79 percent of Democrats approving of Mueller’s work and 71 percent of Republicans disapproving.

Mueller is conducting an expansive investigation that includes Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, whether anyone close to Trump colluded with the Russians and whether the president sought to obstruct justice. Ousting the special prosecutor would probably produce bipartisan protests in Congress, with Democrats opening investigations once they take control of the House in January.

Producing Findings

Mueller is expected to soon produce some investigative findings on collusion and obstruction of justice, according to two U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter who asked to not be identified speaking about the probe. Mueller already was facing intensifying pressure from Trump and Republican lawmakers to produce more indictments or shut down his operation.

Unless the findings result in new indictments or subpoenas that are made public, they might stay secret. As Mueller’s supervisor, Rosenstein or a new acting attorney general would decide whether to make his findings public or share them with congressional committees.

Mueller is unlikely to say anything. The former FBI director hasn’t said a word publicly since he was named in May 2017, letting his indictments speak for him. He’s been quiet even on that front in recent weeks under Justice Department guidelines that say prosecutors should avoid any major steps close to an election that could be seen as influencing the outcome.

While there’s no indication that Rosenstein is pressuring Mueller to conclude the investigation, he has made it clear that he wants it wrapped up as expeditiously as possible.

Even a new supervisor determined to halt Mueller’s work could go only so far in halting the cascade of investigative moves he’s already set off. His team of prosecutors have several deeply developed cases that are being litigated in U.S. courts, and they have farmed out some matters to other Justice Department components such as the U.S. attorney in Manhattan.

Loose Ends

Mueller is in the process of tying down loose ends, according to one official. To date, he’s secured indictments against more than two dozen Russians for interfering in the 2016 election, as well as guilty pleas from top aides on Trump’s presidential campaign, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Both are cooperating with Mueller.

Several matters could keep Mueller’s probe going well into 2019, such as another significant prosecution or new lines of inquiry. And because the investigation has been proceeding out of the public eye, there may have been other major developments behind the scenes.

Mueller only recently submitted written questions to Trump’s lawyers regarding potential collusion with Russia, and his team hasn’t yet ruled out seeking an interview with the president, according to one official. If Trump refused an interview request, Mueller could face the complicated question of whether to seek a grand jury subpoena of the president. The Justice Department has a standing policy that a sitting president can’t be indicted.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.