For months, taxpayers have paid millions as special counsel Robert Mueller’s controversial probe has crawled along. So when will it be done?
Never, warn experts.
President Donald Trump regularly dismisses the investigation as a partisan “witch hunt” — and supporters say that despite millions in tax dollars, a few tax fraud convictions, and over a year of interviews, Mueller’s team still hasn’t provided a single piece of evidence of Russian collusion from anyone in the Trump presidential campaign.
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In August, one Department of Defense whistleblower came forward and said the probe was “all a set-up.” The White House’s legal team says the only evidence found of foreign collusion in the 2016 presidential campaign points to Hillary Clinton’s camp.
But that doesn’t mean Mueller will be wrapping up the probe anytime soon. If the special counsel is indeed driven by partisan motivations, like Trump has warned, then Mueller could easily extend the investigation into Trump’s administration, family, and friends for the president’s entire first term — and more.
The chilling truth is simple: There are zero legal deadlines for Mueller and his team.
Trump and his political allies demanding that Mueller wrap up his Russia investigation within 60 days of the midterm elections in November, citing a Justice Department policy.
But Mueller doesn’t have to listen, according to legal experts. He can continue the probe — and threaten indictments — well into (and beyond) the critical 2018 midterm election.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Mueller faces absolutely no deadline, legal or otherwise, for finishing or releasing the findings of his probe. He can continue investigating, subpoenaing documents, interviewing witnesses past the Nov. 6 election.
Despite the Trump administration’s request, there is no policy that sets a 60-day pause in which the Justice Department is barred from investigating. Nor is there a cutoff date for an investigation to wrap up. The guideline isn’t legally binding — and it means Mueller is free to act whenever he pleases, despite the potential effects it could have on election results.
Justice Department guidance issued over the past decade has been interpreted to mean that investigators, if possible, should avoid taking specific investigative actions — such as indicting candidates or raiding their office — in the run-up to an election.
“Law enforcement officers and prosecutors may never select the timing of investigative steps or criminal charges for the purpose of affecting any election, or for the purpose of giving an advantage or disadvantage to any candidate or political party,” one such memo from 2012 states.
But the policy does not impose a specific cut-off date for investigations before an election. It does not require prosecutors — as some Trump supporters, including lawyer Rudy Giuliani, have suggested — to put an investigation on hold in the period before voters head to the polls.
The Justice Department’s independent inspector general stated in a June report on the Hillary Clinton illegal email server investigation that former officials they interviewed did cite a so-called 60-day rule in which prosecutors avoid public disclosures of investigative steps against a candidate.
But, the report said, “the 60-Day Rule is not written or described in any department policy or regulation.”
“I look at it sort of differently than 60 days,” former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates is quoted in the report as having said. “To me if it were 90 days off, and you think it has a significant chance of impacting an election, unless there’s a reason you need to take that action, now you don’t do it.”
Even if there were such a rule, former FBI Director James Comey already broke it.
These same issues surfaced within the FBI and Justice Department when agents, just weeks before the 2016 presidential election, discovered a new batch of Hillary Clinton emails that they considered relevant to their investigation into her use of a private email server.
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Comey decided to alert Congress to the emails just nine days before the election, saying he had a duty to update lawmakers after having previously told them that the FBI’s work was done.
Mueller is only required by law to deliver a final report to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has been in charge of the probe since Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself. Rosenstein could then choose to release the contents or withhold them.
Even though two-thirds of American voters said in a recent poll that Mueller should complete his investigation before the midterm elections — including majorities in both parties — he’s under no legal obligation to do so.
That thought is enough to chill Trump’s supporters to the bone.
The Associated Press contributed to this article