Mueller report could still damn Trump -- or be a big 'nothing-burger'

The sun sets on the US Capitol on March 22, 2019 in Washington, DC, shortly after the announcement that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had wrapped up his two-year investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.Special counsel Robert Mueller on March 22, 2019, submitted his long-awaited report into an explosive two-year investigation of Russian meddling in Donald Trump's 2016 election -- a probe the president denounces as a "witch hunt" and opponents say could fuel impeachment. What the report says is confidential, but Attorney General Bill Barr wrote in a letter to Congress that he might be able to summarize its "principal conclusions" for Congress as early as this weekend. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski) (AFP)

Washington (AFP) - Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded his Russia meddling investigation Friday without recommending any new charges, but President Donald Trump, who faced obstruction and collusion allegations, could still be implicated in serious, even impeachable wrongdoing.

Experts say the confidential report Mueller has submitted to Attorney General Bill Barr might still have evidence of wrongdoing that for Mueller didn't rise to criminal level but could still an impeachment investigation by Congress.

But no one else has seen the report yet, so the focus is on what comes next in the process in the coming days and weeks.

- First step: inform Congress

Under his mandate, Mueller was to provide to Barr "a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions."

Barr is obliged to summarize the report for the House and Senate judiciary committees.

Barr said Friday he be able to deliver its "principal conclusions" for the committees this weekend.

But Barr, a past critic of Mueller who Trump named to lead the Justice Department only in February, can divulge or withhold as much information as he wants in his own report.

The special counsel regulations "give Barr lots of discretion about what to disclose to Congress and the public," said Andrew Coan, a University of Arizona law professor who has written about special prosecutors and presidents.

Coan said Barr could release an abbreviated report that puts Trump in a good light rather than a very damaging one.

"The selective release of exculpatory material is a possibility worth watching for."

Barr also said he will study how much of Mueller's report he can release to the public.

With public pressure immense, Barr said he is "committed to as much transparency as possible."

David Rivkin, a conservative attorney who has followed the investigation closely, says he thinks there won't be much that Barr needs to hold back.

"My sense is it's going to be a nothing-burger. It will be fairly anticlimactic," he said.

"Mueller is a cautious person, he's not going to make recommendations about impeachment."

- Step two: Congress reacts

Parts or all of Barr's summary can be expected to leak within hours of its arrival on Capitol Hill. But Congress has already moved beyond that to demand more.

The Democratic chairs of six committees in the House insisted Friday that the full Mueller report be released to the public.

"We also expect the underlying evidence uncovered during the course of the Special Counsel's investigation will be turned over to the relevant Committees of Congress upon request," they said.

The value of that could be huge -- or a dud.

The report could be "much ado about nothing," wrote Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist known for her knowledge of the case.

One the other hand, it might be "a very damning report that doesn't amount to criminal behavior" -- something that Democrats in Congress could act upon even if Mueller did not.

If Barr refuses to give more, it could spark a pitched battle between Congress and the White House.

"It is likely to be weeks, and possibly months, before this issue is fully resolved, with much legal and political wrangling in the meantime," said Coan.

- Step three: Congress investigates

Whatever they get from Barr, Congress -- or at least the Democrats who control the House -- will continue to investigate Trump and his circle.

Their reason: through criminal cases against 34 individuals, including six former Trump aides, Mueller sketched out a picture of scores of willing contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians and a readiness to exchange "dirt" on Trump's election rival Hillary Clinton.

And Trump's behavior throughout the investigation has, many lawyers said, met most definitions of obstruction, even if Mueller didn't see a provable case.

If there is more to that picture, Democrats want it out in public, and may believe that further investigation is required beyond the parameters that Mueller set for himself.

Both Mueller and Barr can be expected to be summoned to testify, both behind closed doors where they can discuss intelligence matters, and in public.