On March 22, 2019, Attorney General Bill Barr notified Congress “pursuant to 28 C.F.R. § 600.9 (a) (3) that Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III has concluded his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and related matters.” He further informed it that he was in receipt of the special counsel’s “confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions” made in the course of the investigation. Barr advised that he was reviewing the report and anticipated advising the Congress of the special counsel’s “principal conclusions” possibly as early as this weekend. Finally, Barr indicated that he would consult with the special counsel and deputy attorney general “to determine what other information from the report can be released to Congress and the public consistent with the law, including the Special Counsel regulations, and the Department’s long-standing practices and policies.” This latter process will apparently be separate from the advice regarding the “principal conclusions” and presumably be on a longer timeline.
We don’t know, of course, what the long-anticipated “Mueller report” actually says, and we also don’t know how detailed it is. As Barr notes, the regulations only require the special counsel to explain the prosecution and declination decisions he has made. With respect to prosecution decisions, this could simply consist of a summary of publicly available information as the basis for each prosecution is readily inferred from indictments and other court filings. The scope of declination decisions is a bit trickier. Presumably this could include anyone who was identified as a subject or target of the investigation but not ultimately indicted. It might include anyone whom the special counsel seriously considered indicting but did not. It might include the president, but then again it might not because the president cannot be indicted (according to a longstanding Justice Department view) and therefore there was no declination decision for the special counsel to make.
There is also considerable room for interpretation as to what the special counsel’s “explanation” of his decisions should look like. Read narrowly, it could simply consist of a list of individuals charged or not charged along with a brief statement of the reason (e.g., “Individual 1 was not charged with obstruction of justice due to insufficient evidence of corrupt intent.”). But it could reasonably be read much more broadly to allow the special counsel to provide a road map of all the investigatory steps he took and evidence he accumulated so that the reader fully understands why the special counsel reached the decisions he did.
One thing that is clear, however, is that the intended audience for the special counsel’s report is not Congress or the general public. The regulations provide for a “confidential” report to the attorney general only. See 28 C.F.R. § 600.8 (c). In promulgating the special counsel regulations in 1999, the Clinton Justice Department made clear that this report was not to be shared with Congress or the public:
Much legitimate concern has been expressed about the Final Report requirement of the Independent Counsel Act, with respect to both the incentives it creates to over-investigate a matter and the fact that, since it often becomes a public document, it can do harm to legitimate privacy interests. On the other hand, it is appropriate for any federal official to provide a written record upon completion of an assignment, particularly a federal official who has functioned with substantial independence and little supervision. In major cases, federal prosecutors commonly document their decisions not to pursue a case, explaining the factual and legal reasons for the conclusions they have reached.
The principal source of the problems with the Final Report requirement as set forth in the Independent Counsel Act is the fact that the Report typically has been made public, unlike the closing documentation of any other criminal investigation. This single fact both provides an incentive to over-investigate, in order to avoid potential public criticism for not having turned over every stone, and creates potential harm to individual privacy interests.
Therefore, these regulations impose a limited reporting requirement on all Special Counsels, in the form of a summary final report to the Attorney General. This report will be handled as a confidential document, as are internal documents relating to any federal criminal investigation. The interests of the public in being informed of and understanding the reasons for the actions of the Special Counsel will be addressed in the final set of reporting requirements, discussed below.
64 Fed. Reg. 37038, 37041 (July 9, 1999).
This language suggests that the special counsel report should be similar to other declination reports written by federal prosecutors, but need not be as comprehensive as an independent counsel report. In any event, it is treated as an internal Justice Department document, the kind that the executive branch has argued should be considered “the crown jewels of executive privilege” (see here at pages 15-19) and may not be shared with Congress or the public.
But what of the public’s interest in being informed of the reasons for the special counsel’s actions, alluded to in the last sentence of the Federal Register notice? This is addressed in the following special counsel regulation:
The Attorney General will notify the Chairman and Ranking Minority Member of the Judiciary Committees of each House of Congress, with an explanation for each action-
* * *
(3) Upon conclusion of the Special Counsel’s investigation, including, to the extent consistent with applicable law, a description and explanation of instances (if any) in which the Attorney General concluded that a proposed action by a Special Counsel was so inappropriate or unwarranted under established Departmental practices that it should not be pursued.
28 C.F.R. § 600.9 (a).
It should be noted that Barr’s letter of March 22 already notified the committees of the conclusion of the special counsel’s investigation and the fact that there had been no instances of the attorney general nixing a proposed action of the special counsel. It therefore satisfies the requirements of the regulation with the arguable exception of the “explanation for each action,” which presumably refers to an explanation for the termination of the special counsel’s investigation.
Exactly what is meant by this “explanation” is unclear. As Professor Marty Lederman notes, it “might conceivably consist of only a brief outline explaining why Mueller closed up shop, which is all the regulation formally requires.” It seems likely that this is what Barr is referring to when he speaks of the special counsel’s “principal conclusions.” This might be something on the order of a very summary description of the special counsel’s findings without getting into specifics of particular declination decisions. Any greater detail would seem to be more than what the regulation requires.
Lederman argues, however, that this is “merely a floor, not a ceiling.” Barr seems to be thinking along similar lines when he states he will consult with Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to determine whether additional information can be released consistent with the law and DOJ practices and policies. But this additional information release would seem to be beyond the scope of the regulation itself. If the intent of the regulation were to authorize the attorney general to release any part of the special counsel report not otherwise prohibited by law, it picked an awkward way of expressing it. And if this is Barr’s interpretation, he cannot claim to be legally required to withhold anything other than grand jury information.
In short, it is hard to see how one parses the applicable rules to allow disclosure of only a portion of the Mueller report. The report in essence is a glorified declination memorandum, and either Barr is free to release Mueller’s explanation for his declination decisions or he is not. If he is, it is hard to see how that will not involve getting into both the details of internal prosecutorial decision making (of the kind Lederman correctly notes DOJ does not like to share) and factual information that will impinge upon individual privacy interests. If he is not, it would seem he can share little beyond the report’s “principal conclusions.”
It should be noted that the above analysis is based on the logic of the executive branch’s own regulations and policies. It is not determinative of what would (or should) happen in a legal or constitutional fight between Congress and the executive over access to the Mueller report. There is also an interesting question about the right of White House counsel and the president’s personal lawyers to the Mueller report. It has been reported that the White House will be allowed to review the report for purposes of making executive privilege claims (primarily, one would imagine, those related to the presidential communications branch of the privilege) before it is disclosed to Congress. But will that review encompass the entire report, or only that portion which Barr decides can otherwise be disclosed?