Is special counsel Robert Mueller, after more than 16 months, winding down his sprawling investigation into Russian election interference and possible connections to the Trump campaign?
So far, Mueller’s investigation has obtained six guilty pleas and one jury conviction. Another 26 individuals and three Russian companies have been indicted. But in recent months he has been steadily shedding staff. There are now just 13 prosecutors left on his team, compared to 17 at its peak.
Brandon Van Grack returned to the Justice Department’s National Security Division in August and Kyle Freeny finished her detail in mid-October. She will head back to the Justice Department’s money laundering division. The pair helped prosecute former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was convicted in Virginia in August and pleaded guilty in Washington last month. Manafort has yet to be sentenced in either case.
But the reduction in prosecutor numbers could be deceptive. Mueller's team has been virtually leak-proof, leading to speculation often filling the vacuum.
On Wednesday, Bloomberg reported that Mueller is expected to issue “findings on core aspects” of his probe soon after the midterm elections, as pressure to end the inquiry intensifies. The same day, CNN reported that Mueller’s prosecutors and sources have been seen near-daily, and the team has been busy with interviews, grand jury meetings and “secret court action” — a sign that things are still churning away behind the scenes.
So are we nearing the end?
“Who the heck knows? My guess is he is getting close to done, but that is only a guess,” said Peter Zeidenberg, a former Justice Department prosecutor, told the Washington Examiner.
“I think anyone who tells you the answer to this question [of winding down] with a high degree of confidence is mistaken,” Zeidenberg explained.
A seasoned investigator urged caution. “Anyone who is sure he is wrapping up is projecting their own thinking," said Paul Rosenzweig, a former senior counsel on the Whitewater investigation. "Anyone who is sure he is just laying low is, likewise, projecting. Mueller has been quiet of late because of the midterm elections. Expect a resumption after the new year."
Trump’s legal team was characteristically mum on what they thought. Martin and Jane Raskin relayed questions to Jay Sekulow, who declined to comment. "We do not disclose our ongoing discussions with the Office of Special Counsel,” Sekulow told the Washington Examiner — a variation of the only on-the-record statement he gives to the media.
In August, President Trump labeled Mueller’s team a “national disgrace” and said they are “looking to impact” the November midterm elections. But Justice Department guidance is aimed at making sure the agency’s work — that includes Mueller — doesn’t influence elections.
That guidance was put in place by Eric Holder, President Barack Obama's attorney general, in 2012 and forbids Mueller from timing any steps in order to influence the election.
“Simply put, politics must play no role in the decisions of federal investigators or prosecutors regarding any investigations or criminal charges. 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,” reads the March 2012 memo.
But that didn't stop FBI director James Comey from weighing in on Hillary Clinton's email at the height of the 2016 presidential election, to the dismay of both Republicans and Democrats.
Even if Mueller — who has kept a lower profile than Comey — does stay out of the limelight until after Nov. 6, there is little doubt that whatever he does next will help set the agenda for the second half of Trump's four-year term.