WASHINGTON — Attorney General William Barr has many options on how to handle the highly anticipated final report of special counsel Robert Mueller that’s expected to be completed this month, but he has kept mum about what he’ll do.
The report could be politically explosive by shining a light on the investigation’s findings on Russia’s attempt to interfere in the 2016 election, any Trump campaign links or coordination with Russia, and whether President Donald Trump tried to obstruct the investigation.
It also could settle the question of whether Mueller has any evidence that Trump himself coordinated with Russians, which the president has vehemently denied as he repeatedly tweeted “no collusion.”
Yet Barr has refused to promise senators that he would release all or any part of the final confidential report that Mueller files when he wraps up his nearly two-year, $30 million-plus investigation that has won indictments or guilty pleas from 34 people and three companies.
Still, Barr, a Republican with a sense of politics, has a track record: When he was attorney general from 1991 to 1993 under President George H.W. Bush, he appointed three special counsels and released their reports to the public in a bid to defuse the controversies and to quell Democratic criticism.
Under the current Justice Department regulation, Barr must release some type of report to Congress — which most likely will become public.
“I believe it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the special counsel’s work,” Barr told the Senate in his confirmation hearing in January.
Barr, however, hedged that statement repeatedly in his hearing, leading Democrats and Trump critics to threaten to sue for the release of the Mueller report if he doesn’t. House Democrats plan to pass a resolution in the upcoming week demanding that Barr release the report.
Barr did not respond to reporters' questions at an unrelated news conference last week about the report. Mueller's press aide declined to comment.
Already, Mueller has laid out an extensive map to his investigation through his hundreds of pages of filings in indictments, prosecutions, convictions and guilty pleas. But there are gaps that need to be filled and dots that need to be connected — which a final report could do.
Barr has made clear that he will control how to roll out the report by Mueller, whom Barr describes as a respected former colleague and friend.
It is a role assigned to the attorney general by the Justice Department regulation on special counsels created by Attorney General Janet Reno in 1999 to rein in the excesses of independent counsel Ken Starr after Congress let the independent counsel law expire.
The regulation requires Mueller to submit a confidential report on prosecutions and the investigation to Barr. Then it requires Barr to notify the chairmen and the ranking minority members of the House and Senate judiciary committees. It does not say how or when Barr must notify Congress.
Barr last week rejected Democrats’ demands he step aside from Mueller’s probe and final report because he has conflict after sending an unsolicited memo critical of Mueller’s focus on obstruction by Trump to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and some of Trump’s lawyers.
Instead, Barr told senators in January he intended to consult with Mueller and Rosenstein — who appointed Mueller and oversaw his investigation — about both the final report and his required report.
Barr said he even might write his own summary of Mueller’s report.
Barr has many options. He could release a terse report. He could follow the example of the Watergate special counsel and provide a confidential report to Congress that draws no conclusions but provides a road map for impeachment.
Or, if Mueller writes a report in line with those filed by several previous special counsels, Barr could submit an in-depth, detailed explanatory document, 200 to 300 pages long, with an executive summary of its conclusion and several exhibits.
The report could redact confidential or sensitive material, such as counterintelligence efforts on Russia’s campaign of interference in U.S. elections, names of innocent witnesses or protected grand jury matters — or it could put those items in a classified index.
When he served as attorney general under Bush, Barr appointed three special counsels under his own authority — long before Reno’s rules — and released their full reports on politically fraught and complex issues.
Barr is no fan of outside counsels conducting Justice Department investigations.
He explained in a 2001 oral history interview with the University of Virginia’s Miller Center that he named those special counsels to avoid a worse option — an independent counsel, who is even more insulated from supervision than a special counsel.
“I have come to feel that political supervision of the [Justice] Department is very important,” Barr said. “Someone ultimately has to answer to the political process.”