Special Counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly wrapping up his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and may complete his report in the near future.
After nearly two years of probes, interviews, indictments and hype, there are a lot of expectations weighing on the outcome. Mueller and his team have already brought charges against 34 people and three companies, including several key members of President Donald Trump’s inner circle and a host of Russian nationals.
While a lot has happened in the last few years, there is even more the public does not yet know. When Mueller finishes his work, he will submit a confidential report to the attorney general, but there are few requirements for what the report must look like or whether any part of it gets released to the public.
Here are answers to some of the most-searched questions about Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Who is investigating Trump and Russia?
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel in May 2017 to investigate any links or coordination between the Russian government and Trump’s campaign during the 2016 presidential election. He did this after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey, who had been leading the investigation into the election.
Before becoming special counsel, Mueller worked in the Justice Department’s criminal division in the 1990s and served as FBI director from 2001 until 2013. Mueller transformed the FBI in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and when he was appointed special counsel in 2017, he was greeted with rare bipartisan praise.
Mueller’s team consists of prosecutors, former FBI agents and other lawyers, who each have specialities that correspond to many of the indictments, according to the New York Times. So far they have gotten seven guilty pleas and indicted another 27 individuals and three Russian companies.
Did Russia help Trump win the 2016 presidential election?
At this point there is no question that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the goal of helping Trump win the White House. The U.S. intelligence community concluded this in its report on the election back in January 2017, and the Senate and House intelligence committees have agreed on this too.
Mueller’s investigation has taken these findings further. His earliest charges were against former Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos and former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who each pled guilty to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Russians.
In February 2018, the Justice Department charged 13 Russian operatives and three companies with violating criminal laws to “conduct information warfare against the United States of America.” The prosecutors’ indictment said this group of Russians, working at a company called the Internet Research Agency, allegedly used social media to sow discord, stir up divisiveness and spread “distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.” They did all of this explicitly to support Trump’s candidacy, according to the indictment.
Over the next several months of 2018, Mueller’s team pursued more charges against a number of other individuals, including former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his aide Rick Gates and another associate named Konstantin Kilimnik, who is suspected of having close ties to Russian intelligence.
Then in July 2018, Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officers in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and state boards of elections. Working with WikiLeaks, the hackers released the documents stolen from Clinton and the DNC in an attempt to further damage her campaign. Trump cheered them on, taking full advantage of the chaos.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied interfering in the 2016 election, he has said publicly that he did want Trump to win. “Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal,” Putin said at a press conference in July 2018.
Putin has a long history of bad blood with Clinton, going back to her time as Secretary of State, so it also makes sense that he would not want her in the White House. In contrast, Trump has often praised Putin, and some experts said the Russian leader may have believed Trump would be easier to control.
Despite all of this, it is difficult to tell whether Russia’s interference successfully changed the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Some experts like Nate Silver say that the specific effects of Russian interference are hard to measure, and that their social media efforts may not have been extensive enough to swing large numbers of votes.
But others like Kathleen Hall Jamieson at the University of Pennsylvania have argued that it is very likely Russia did affect the election’s winner. After all, Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, and Trump’s victory came down to about 79,000 votes in three swing states, meaning not that many votes had to change to help him win.
Did Trump’s campaign collude with Russia?
A crucial part of Mueller’s investigation is not just how Russia helped Trump, but also whether Trump’s campaign actively worked with the Russians in these efforts. Mueller’s public indictments have not yet demonstrated that his happened, but he has gathered significant evidence that various people in Trump’s orbit were talking to Russians during and about the 2016 campaign.
The first person charged in the Russia investigation was Papadopoulos, Trump’s former foreign policy advisor. He tried to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian officials during the campaign, communicated with Russians who promised they had “dirt” on Clinton and then lied to the FBI about his actions.
As Trump moved toward clinching the Republican Party’s nomination in the summer of 2016, another set of Russians reached out to his oldest son, Donald Trump Jr. On June 9, 2016, Trump Jr., along with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Manafort, met with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in New York City. The lawyer had promised documents and information that could “incriminate” Clinton, but ultimately they say she did not provide useful information.
Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant and Republican political operative, also played an active part in Russia’s plans, according to prosecutors. In January, Mueller charged Stone with obstruction, lying and witness tampering, laying out in a 24-page indictment how Stone allegedly sought information about the hacked DNC and Clinton emails at the direction of a senior Trump campaign official.
Perhaps the most important link here is Manafort. At some point during 2016, Manafort shared polling data related to the Trump campaign with Kilimnik, his friend and alleged Russian intelligence officer, according to court papers filed by Manafort’s defense team. In July 2016, Manafort also asked Kilimnik to help him offer to provide private briefings about the campaign to Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, according to the Washington Post. It appears these briefings did not happen, but the offer shows another connection to Russia and was seen as an indicator of Manafort’s desire to make money from his involvement in the campaign.
What is the Trump-Russia dossier?
The dossier, a collection of 35 pages of unverified intelligence memos about Trump’s ties to Russia, was created by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele in 2016. It described a vast “conspiracy of cooperation” between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and alleged that the Kremlin had information it could use to blackmail Trump. When Comey was still FBI director, he briefed Trump about the dossier in early January 2017, and BuzzFeed soon published the full report. The Steele dossier immediately drew intense controversy and fascination, in part because it included salacious details about Trump’s alleged sexual activities in Russia.
It also turned out Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee partly funded Steele’s research, which added to the skepticism around its findings. But while Trump has dismissed the dossier as “fake news” and its biggest claims remain unproven, many other aspects have held up well over the last two years.
First, Mueller’s investigation has shown that there was extensive contact between members of Trump’s campaign and Russians. Some individual meetings mentioned in the dossier might remain unconfirmed, but the general idea that these two groups were in communication is correct.
Other key allegations in the dossier included that Putin was working to help Trump because he did not want Clinton elected, that Russians worked to exploit divisions between Clinton and Bernie Sanders to that end, and that the DNC hacks were part of a larger Russian hacking effort. All of these elements have been confirmed in Mueller’s indictments.
Another piece of the dossier that has proven true is that Trump explored real estate deals in Russia. The dossier said Russia had tried to entice Trump with “sweetener” deals, and Trump repeatedly hit back by saying he had no personal business in the country. However, Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen has since pleaded guilty to lying to Congress (and recently testified in Congress) about his efforts to aggressively pursue a Trump Tower project in Moscow throughout 2016. Court filings from Mueller note that this took place while Russia was trying to influence the presidential election, and prosecutors said the project “likely required” help from the Russian government.
The other two people prominently mentioned in the dossier are Trump’s former national security advisor Flynn and another former advisor named Carter Page. The dossier mentions that Russia paid for Flynn to visit Moscow, an allegation Flynn initially denied. But a House investigation later revealed that the Kremlin-run TV station RT paid Flynn to speak at a gala in 2015. As for Page, the dossier’s allegations against him have mostly not been publicly confirmed. But the FBI did use some of these claims, in addition to other evidence, to obtain a warrant to wiretap Page — and federal judges renewed this warrant three times.
Does Trump himself have any ties to Russia?
Despite his protestations, Trump has a long history of chasing business opportunities in Russia.
Trump looked into establishing a hotel in Russia as early as 1987, according to the New York Times. About a decade later, in 1996, he announced plans to put his name on two buildings, though the buildings never worked out. He again explored a construction project in the mid-2000s.
During this time, Trump’s children and a growing group of associates took meetings and looked into other deals in Russia, the Times reported. While no Trump towers were built, Trump and Trump Jr. spoke highly of their experiences there, with the oldest Trump son telling a 2008 real estate conference “I really prefer Moscow over all cities in the world.”
In 2013, Trump himself went to Moscow to attend the Miss Universe pageant in a trip that has since attracted much fascination as Trump’s ties to Russia have come under scrutiny. He worked with Russian developer Aras Agalarov on the pageant and tweeted about a wishful friendship with Putin.
His most recent connection, of course, is the 2016 attempt to build a Trump Tower in Moscow that has come to light with Michael Cohen’s guilty plea and testimony. Cohen initially told Congress that he stopped pursuing the Moscow project by the early days of the primary elections in January 2016, and that he did not travel to Russia for the project or contact the Russian government about it. However, all of that was false and Cohen has since said he continued working on the Moscow tower as late as June 2016, with the knowledge of Trump.
What has Trump said about Russia and the investigation?
Throughout all of this, Trump has angrily dismissed the Russia investigation and any suggestion that he or his family has ties to Russia. He has repeatedly called Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt” and a “hoax” and has verbally attacked everyone from Comey to the Obama administration to the news media to the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies.
Trump has gone back and forth on whether he believes that Russia interfered with the 2016 election. When the intelligence community first released its report in 2017 confirming that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election, Trump softened the message, saying “Russia, China and other countries” were waging cyber attacks against the U.S. He also accused intelligence agencies of allowing the Steele dossier to leak and tweeted his disavowal of those allegations.
Over the next two years, Trump often changed his views on Russia’s interference. Each time he met with Putin, Trump came away saying he believed the Russian president’s denials that Russia meddled in the election, only to go back on this after receiving pressure from U.S. officials.
Trump has also shifted how he responds to specific findings in Mueller’s investigation, frequently deflecting or hitting back at various accusers. Whenever he faces new facts uncovered by prosecutors or news reports, TIME has noted that Trump follows a pattern: first he denies everything, then he downplays any facts he cannot escape, and finally he argues that the alleged wrongdoing didn’t matter anyway. He has done this with Russia’s election interference (“the Russians had no impact on our votes whatsoever,” he said last March); with the Trump Tower meeting (he tweeted the meeting was “totally legal and done all the time in politics”); and with his attempts to pursue business in Russia during the campaign (“there would have been nothing wrong if I did do it,” he told reporters).
Meanwhile, Trump’s own behavior toward Russia has been extremely friendly. He has continued to speak highly of Putin, expressed support for other far-right leaders such as France’s Marine Le Pen and Hungary’s Viktor Orban, criticized NATO, defended Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, declined to act after Russia attacked Ukrainian ships and as the Washington Post reported in January, he has taken significant steps to hide the details of many of his conversations with Putin since becoming President.
Can Mueller indict Trump?
There is widespread disagreement over whether it would be constitutional for Mueller to indict Trump while he is the sitting United States president. There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits a President from being prosecuted while in office and a president can definitely be indicted after he or she leaves the White House. But the Justice Department has long taken the position that an indictment of a sitting president would be unconstitutional due to its functional effects.
In 1973 when Richard Nixon’s presidency was in jeopardy, and then again in 2000 with Bill Clinton, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) determined that “the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions.”
This does not mean that a president is above the law. Rather, it means that, in the view of the OLC, the President’s ability to run the country undistracted is more important than an indictment while he is in office.
Not everyone agrees with this interpretation. Some legal experts like Eric M. Freedman of Hofstra University have argued that previous federal officeholders — such as Vice President Aaron Burr — were indicted, and that the idea of immunity while in office does not hold up. One of Trump’s former lawyers also argued that a sitting president could be indicted.
No one has tested the Justice Department’s conclusion, and many experts don’t expect Mueller to do so either. But even if he does not indict Trump, Mueller has a number of options for how he can conclude his investigation.
What happens after Mueller finishes his report?
Much of the outcome is still up in the air. Mueller has not said when he will finish his investigation, so despite reports that he is nearing its end, no date has been announced. And while Americans are eager to learn what Mueller has found, there’s no guarantee they will get to see anything beyond what it is already public.
The Justice Department requires the special counsel to provide the attorney general, now William Barr, with a confidential report about his investigation. But it does not specify what the report has to include or look like, or who else should see it.
At the most basic level, Mueller could provide Barr with a bare-bones letter outlining his decisions about who he has charged and who he has not. Alternatively, he could write a detailed report or a narrative accounting of his findings. Mueller could also offer up more indictments or a separate progress report before this is all over, and he could wrap up his report and then refer remaining cases to other prosecutors.
Once Mueller has completed his report, the attorney general will take over. Justice Department regulations do not require Barr to make the special counsel’s report public, or even to show it to Congress or the White House.
Barr does have to tell the House and Senate judiciary committees certain things, including a description and explanation of any special counsel actions he denies. He promised Congress during his confirmation hearing in January that he would provide some transparency around Mueller’s findings, but it’s not yet clear how he will interpret this. Barr could release Mueller’s report to the public, or more likely could release a summary or edited version, or he could just announce Mueller is done and provide no further information.
The next steps also depend on what Mueller actually finds. If his report does not find evidence of wrongdoing or collusion by Trump, this could allow the President to proclaim victory.
If Mueller does find evidence of criminal activity, he could name the President as an unindicted co-conspirator, which is what happened with Nixon in the Watergate investigation. In the most extreme scenario, Congress could use this information to pursue impeachment. Both chambers of Congress are also pursuing their own investigations, and could try to call Mueller and his staff as witnesses, or force a political battle if they believe Barr is withholding portions of Mueller’s report.
Whatever Mueller does, that will not be the end of investigations into Trump. Other offices, including federal prosecutors in New York, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, are still pursuing investigations into Trump’s businesses and associates. And Trump is sure to react to any report from Mueller, potentially creating another high stakes political showdown.