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US on edge for Russia probe findings on Trump

Sunday March 24 2019

This combination of pictures created on January

This combination of pictures created on January 8, 2018 shows files photos of former FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) on June 19, 2013, in Washington, DC; and US President Donald Trump on December 15, 2017, in Washington, DC. PHOTO | AFP 

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By AFP
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WASHINGTON,

The US public and Washington's deeply divided political class faced an anxious wait Saturday to learn if the key findings of the Russian meddling probe will implicate President Donald Trump in serious wrongdoing.

One day after Special Counsel Robert Mueller submitted the confidential final report on his 22 month investigation, Attorney-General Bill Barr was studying the document, which he must summarise for Congress.

The Justice Department told legislators however that Mr Barr would not be sending an outline of its "principal conclusions" expected over the weekend on Saturday, according to US media.

That left the American public still in the dark over what the Mueller investigation uncovered about the president's ties to Russia and alleged acts of obstruction of justice.

TRUMP SILENT

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Chronic tweeter Trump, who was spending the weekend at his Palm Beach, Florida Mar-a-Lago residence, remained uncommonly silent after spending two years repeatedly labeling Mr Mueller's investigation an illegal witch hunt.

After the president spent the morning golfing, White House spokesman Hogan Gidley confirmed that they still had not seen the report or been briefed on its findings.

Asked how the president felt, Mr Gidley replied: "He's good."

Meanwhile Democrats in Congress, many of who are hoping for evidence to support a presidential impeachment, pressed hard to ensure the report's full contents are made public, and not just a summary prepared by the Trump-appointed Barr.

NO EXCUSE

Neal Katyal, the former Justice Department official who drafted the rules for special counsels, said Mr Barr had no excuse for keeping Mr Mueller's report secret.

"Absolutely nothing in the law or the regulations prevents the report from becoming public," Mr Katyal said in a Washington Post opinion piece.

The secret report was handed to Mr Barr on Friday with the announcement that no new indictments were forthcoming.

That produced sighs of relief from the White House, where members of President Trump's family -- Don Jr. and son-in-law Jared Kushner in particular -- had been feared possible targets of the probe.

For Mr Trump himself, Mr Mueller was prevented by longstanding Justice Department policy from indicting the President.

But his report could still outline criminal behavior by Mr Trump that could be the basis for an impeachment effort.

THE PROBE

Mr Mueller, a 74-year-old veteran criminal prosecutor and former FBI chief, investigated whether members of Mr Trump's campaign colluded with Russians to skew the 2016 election.

In addition, he studied whether actions by Mr Trump, including the May 2017 firing of FBI director James Comey, amounted to criminal obstruction of justice.

At the end of the probe, he was required to produce to Mr Barr a confidential report that explained why he decided to indict or not indict subjects of the probe.

Mr Barr must summarise the report for Congress.

He said in a letter to congressional leaders Friday that he is "committed to as much transparency as possible."

DISCRETION

However, the special counsel regulations "give Barr lots of discretion about what to disclose," said Andrew Coan, a University of Arizona law professor.

"The selective release of exculpatory material is a possibility worth watching for," Mr Coan warned.

Analysts cautioned Saturday about reaching any conclusions, saying nothing is yet known about the form or length of the report.

"The president should wait before popping the champagne corks over this and tweeting in triumph." Benjamin Wittes, a prominent Washington legal analyst, wrote on the Lawfare website.

BROAD PICTURE

Mr Mueller indicted 34 individuals during the probe, among them six Trump associates, including his former national security advisor Mike Flynn, his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Five of the six have pleaded guilty to the charges against them.

Court filings in those cases painted a broad picture of a cohesive Russian effort via hacking and social media manipulation to swing the election in President Trump's favor against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The investigation has revealed scores of contacts between the campaign and Russians, with members of the team readily talking to the Russians about obtaining dirt on Clinton.

Hours before Mr Barr's announcement, Mr Trump repeated his accusation that the entire investigation was a hoax and questioned Mr Mueller's credentials for investigating him.

But Mr Mueller, who was director of the FBI for 12 years, has the respect and support of Democrats and Republicans alike as a straight-shooting, disciplined and fair investigator.