Politico published a downer on Friday. “President Donald Trump’s critics have spent the past 17 months anticipating what some expect will be among the most thrilling events of their lives: special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report on Russian 2016 election interference,” the article began. “They may be in for a disappointment.” That’s the conclusion reporter Darren Samuelsohn came to after speaking with defense lawyers involved in the case and “more than 15 former government officials with investigation experience.”
The logic behind Samuelsohn’s theory is that Mueller’s report may never be released to the public—and even if it were, it may not contain any bombshells because the special counsel’s “by-the-books, conservative style” may cause him to “lean more toward saying less than more.” In short: Don’t get your hopes up, Trump critics.
There are reasons to expect otherwise. If this were a normal criminal investigation, special counsel Robert Mueller would likely end it as quietly as he ran it. Prosecutors don’t typically comment on what they find during a criminal inquiry unless they use it to bring charges, and for good reason. Investigators often trudge through intimate details of people’s lives, uncover embarrassing secrets, or find evidence of wrongdoing that falls short of criminal activity. Generally speaking, it would be deeply unfair for prosecutors to reveal what they learn outside of a courtroom.
But the Russia investigation is more than that. Trump and his Republican allies in Congress have resisted efforts to learn the full extent and effect of Russian election meddling in 2016. Party leaders refused to create a Watergate-style committee or a 9/11-style commission to find the truth, while House Republicans have spent the last year trying to discredit and shut down the Justice Department’s inquiry into the matter. By the time a Democratic president or Congress is able to order a full-scale inquiry, it may be too late. Memories fade. Documents go missing. Evidence disappears.
As a result, the special counsel’s inquiry may be Americans’ best chance to understand an attack on their democracy. Mueller could wrap up his work sooner, later, or not at all. I wrote in April that if he is unable to complete the investigation because of political interference by the Trump administration, he has a duty to go public with his findings. That reasoning applies even if he wraps up the probe of his own accord. Mueller’s silence is ethically, legally, and politically smart while the investigation is ongoing. But to keep quiet after it ends would be incompatible with a democratic society.
Under Justice Department guidelines, Mueller will provide a report to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein when he’s done. It’s unclear whether that moment is approaching. Bloomberg reported last week that Mueller is close to reaching a conclusion on the two main threads in the Russia investigation: whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin in 2016, and whether Trump himself obstructed justice through his firing of FBI Director James Comey and other efforts to undercut the investigation into election meddling. CNN disputed that account, quoting an unnamed Justice Department official who expected the inquiry to continue “well after the midterms.”
Though Mueller hasn’t taken public steps ahead of the November midterms, there are signs that he hasn’t been idle. Investigators continued to question associates of Roger Stone, the longtime Republican political operative, about his interactions with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange during the 2016 election. The special counsel’s office reportedly met with former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort nine times in the last four weeks. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, also sat for multiple interviews with Mueller’s team since Labor Day.
Will Americans ever learn what they told Mueller? If he sticks with the practices of past investigations, maybe not. As Samuelsohn reported, Mueller’s findings “may never see the light of day” if he sticks to standard operating procedure. This may come as something of a surprise to Americans who remember independent counsel Ken Starr’s lurid report on President Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which Congress used as the basis for Clinton’s impeachment in 1998. But the law that gave Starr his independence is no longer in force, Samuelsohn noted. Because Mueller’s powers flow through the Justice Department’s internal rules, he has far less leeway to make reports available to Congress or the public.
In this case, silence would be untenable on multiple levels. First, the public needs to know the full extent of what Mueller has learned about Russian interference. He’s already done some good work on this front with the Internet Research Agency indictment in February and the Fancy Bear indictment in July. Despite the president’s habitual denials, those charges reaffirmed that the Russian government bore responsibility for what happened in 2016. And while it’s unlikely any of the defendants will ever see a U.S. courtroom, the charges provide a common set of facts for the public to understand the depth and breadth of social-media manipulation during the election.
The need for accountability goes even further. Mueller’s findings would allow Americans to know who did what during the 2016 election and how they should be held to account. For some individuals, the answer may be criminal charges. In other cases, it may be useful to know what mistakes or acts of wrongdoing were committed so that changes can be made to prevent them from happening again. The 9/11 Commission, for example, made dozens of recommendations when it released its final report. While it may be inappropriate for Mueller to make the recommendations himself, what he’s uncovered would be useful in helping others figure out what steps to take.
There’s also civic value to knowing what happened. With so many threads and figures in the Russia investigation, it’s easy to lose track of why this all matters. At its core are questions about the validity of American self-government itself. Did the president conspire with foreign powers to take over the country? Did he break the law by trying to shut down inquiries into that question? Americans need answers to these questions for an abstract but fundamental purpose: so they can maintain faith in the nation’s democratic system, or take appropriate electoral action if that faith is not warranted.
Official silence in this case would do more harm than good. Thanks to the Warren Commission’s secrecy and mistakes, more than 61 percent of Americans still don’t believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he assassinated John F. Kennedy in 1963. Widespread suspicions that President Gerald Ford made a corrupt bargain to pardon Richard Nixon during the Watergate crisis contributed to Ford’s defeat in the 1976 election. Mueller’s conclusion may not be accepted by everyone, of course. But the Russia saga is already a psychic wound in American political life. Without some kind of resolution, it will only continue to fester for the next hundred years.
It’s true that a report by Mueller likely won’t provide definitive answers on every aspect of Russian interference, and may even fail to answer key questions about what happened. That task will likely fall to historians, as it often has in the past. Americans shouldn’t have to wait that long for answers, though. At least half of the country believes the president may have cooperated with a foreign government while it broke the law to win his office. If Mueller can prove collusion, the American people deserve to know. If Mueller can’t prove it, that would be important to know, too.