Photo: Getty, Illustration: Jim Cooke (GMG)

If you’re a thankfully normal human being living an actual life there’s a decent chance you’ve only been sorta paying attention to the labyrinthine ins-and-outs of what President Donald Trump has calls a “witch hunt,” and everyone else calls “that Russia thing, I guess?” AKA the Mueller investigation.

For the past two years, Former FBI Director Robert Mueller and his hand-picked team of prosecutors have been investigating the when, how, and why Russia reached across the Atlantic Ocean to muck around in the 2016 presidential election—and more importantly, whether or not Trump and anyone on his team helped them do it.

Mueller’s investigation will, at some point, mercifully come to a close, and when it does, it will invariably be a Big Deal. Given the size, scope, and implications of Mueller’s investigation—but absent any actual report (yet...) to make sense of it all—the American public is left with nothing but a faded Ouija board smeared with tea leaves to figure out what the fuck is actually going on.

UPDATE, 3/22/19: Mueller’s report has officially been handed in to the Justice Department

The last thing you want, then, is to be the totally clueless schmuck wondering what all this shit hitting the fan is about. So here’s the tl;dr; a mostly complete overview of this entire Mueller mess that’ll let you sound like you (mostly) know what you’re talking about. Here we go!


What is the Mueller investigation?

On May 17, 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the appointment of former FBI director under President George W. Bush, Robert Mueller III, as Special Counsel for the Department of Justice. His job? Oversee the DOJ’s investigation into any Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether anyone in Trump’s orbit (including the president himself) was involved in any way. Why Rosenstein, and not then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions? Because Sessions had previously recused himself from anything having to do with an investigation into Russian meddling since he himself had worked as a surrogate on Trump’s implicated presidential campaign.

According to Rosenstein’s announcement, Mueller’s ongoing mandate is to investigate:

Any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.

That second part is worth reiterating: “and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” In other words, not only was Mueller tasked with looking into whether Trump’s campaign helped the Russians during the election, but he’s also supposed to prosecute any other—potentially unrelated—crimes he might uncover along the way.

So what’s been goin’ on?

A lot. A whole lot.

The full scope of what Mueller is investigating is still a mystery, but he’s already left a long trail of convictions, guilty pleas, and indictments in his wake. Some of them are pretty important. Others seems ancillary to the main thrust of his investigation. But no matter how many times Trump hollers “witch hunt!” the fact remains that Mueller has managed to find plenty of witches over the course of the past few years.

So far there have been a whopping 34 people and three companies indicted by Mueller. Put the hundreds of pages already released by the SCO together, and the vague topography of his investigation comes into focus: All told, they show a Trump presidential campaign with many, many ties to Russian officials acting alongside other Russian entities who have spent years working to subvert an American election through a variety of means.

As I mentioned before, some of the people caught up in Mueller’s net are just bit players who happened to stumble into one of the largest investigations in recent memory. For example, Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan (“Who?” Right?) pleaded guilty in February 2018 for lying to Mueller’s team about former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s compliance with foreign lobbying laws. He got 30 days in jail. California resident Richard Pinedo similarly pleaded guilty after he was nabbed by Mueller for creating fake bank accounts that, unbeknownst to him, were used by Russians in the course of their interference operation. He got six months in jail and six months of house arrest.

But those are infinitesimally small fish compared to some of the whoppers Mueller has landed.

All the major indictments so far

In December 2017, former Trump National Security Advisor Gen. Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about meetings he’d had with Russian Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak the previous year. Flynn (of “lock her up” fame) became the first major notch in Mueller’s investigative belt and has since managed to repeatedly push off his criminal sentencing, in part because of the subsequent “substantial assistance” he’s provided Mueller and his team.

Compare that to the nearly 25-year-long sentence recommended by Mueller for former Trump Campaign Chair Paul Manafort, whom a jury found guilty in August 2018 of eight felonies, including bank and tax fraud—charges Mueller was able to bring against Manafort thanks to his expansive mandate to pursue “any matters that arose or may arise” over the course of his investigation. (Manafort was sentenced to a combined total of 7.5 years, pending good behavior, earlier this month.)

While Manafort’s conviction—and subsequent guilty pleas, and agreement to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation—doesn’t directly relate to the question of Russian interference, and whether or not Trump himself was aware of it (although they certainly show one of the highest ranking officials in the Trump campaign was involved in some incredibly shady Russia-adjacent stuff), it certainly helps paint the picture of a campaign beset by amoral criminals. Manafort’s involvement also leaves open the possibility that in securing a cooperation agreement, he could well have shared information that would allow Mueller to work his way up the Trumpian food chain to someone even closer to the president’s inner circle.

Which brings us, unfortunately, to Roger Stone.

Stone, a self-proclaimed “dirty trickster” and longtime Republican ghoul who’s spent decades submerged in the grossest fringes of mainstream politics, is the latest major Mueller indictment to drop. While he never played an official role in the Trump campaign—he’s just a close, personal pal of the president—the allegations against Stone offer what is perhaps the clearest and most direct indication that Trump’s closest allies may have been knowingly involved in Russian disruption efforts. Specifically, by allegedly coordinating the release of Democratic National Committee emails taken by Russian hackers and published by Wikileaks (Stone has denied the charges).

And it’s not just Trump confidantes and others in his orbit that Mueller’s gone after, either.

In February 2018, Mueller’s office issued indictments to 13 Russian nationals and three companies who, they alleged, “engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes” by “posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences.” In other words: An online troll farm, which allegedly “addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists when, in fact, they were controlled by Defendants.”

And perhaps most importantly: “Defendant ORGANIZATION had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

Five months later, in July, the Special Counsel’s Office released a 29-page, 11-count indictment against 12 Russian intelligence agents accused of doing the actual hacking of the DNC. According to the SCO, among the agents charged was “a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign,” although it does not name the senior campaign officials in question.

Here’s everyone and everything that’s been indicted or reached a plea agreement so far:

OK, but what does Michael Cohen have to do with this?

Sigh. Here’s where things get complicated(-er). Because Mueller’s isn’t the only investigative game in town. In addition to the Special Counsel’s Office’s look into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, there’s also a separate series of investigations brewing out of the Southern District of New York regarding the Trump Organization and the Trump inaugural committee—investigations which could prove as damaging and dangerous to Trump as anything Mueller may or may not come up with.

It was the SDNY which initially prosecuted Cohen for a host of financial crimes, including those related to illegal hush money payments made to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, allegedly at the behest of Trump himself. Cohen eventually pleaded guilty, and will be spending three years in prison starting this spring.

This doesn’t mean Mueller is ignoring Cohen and leaving him entirely at the mercy of the SDNY. Quite the opposite, in fact: As recently as September of last year, Cohen was rumored to have been cooperating with Mueller’s office, and it was the SCO which flagged Cohen for having allegedly lied to Congress. All told, Cohen has reportedly spent dozens of hours talking with Mueller and his team.

What is Congress doing while this is happening?

After taking control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections, Congressional Democrats have wasted little time reviving Republicans’ laughably corrupt attempts to “investigate” (read: protect) the president with their own congressional probes alongside Mueller’s work. And from the looks of it, the Dems are casting a pretty wide net—asking for documents from over 80 Trump associates, including the president’s two adult sons, business associates, campaign advisors, and White House staffers.

And the Democrats aren’t working the dark, either.

Lawmakers are reportedly using the Mueller investigation as a sort of road-map for their own peek into the underbelly of Trumpland, which means that no matter what ends up happening to the Mueller report itself (we’ll get to that in a second) the groundwork he’s laid out over the past two years will likely continue to play a role in a fresh round of inquiries into just what the president and his rouges gallery of ghouls have been up to.

Clearly, the White House is thrilled.


But will we ever even see what Mueller finds?

There’s a debate raging in Washington over how much of Mueller’s eventual report should be made public—if at all.

When Mueller does finish his report, he’s obligated to turn it over to Attorney General William Barr—who, unlike his predecessor, has notably not recused himself from anything Russia-related. But from there, things get tricky.

Barr is required to notify Congress when Mueller hands in his final report, but beyond that he’s got a whole lot of latitude about what he actually shares with lawmakers and with the public.

While Barr himself declared during his confirmation hearing that “the public and Congress be informed of the results of the special counsel’s work,” what that actually means on a practical level is pretty open to interpretation—specifically, his own. That could make the fight over releasing the report pretty messy, especially given the DOJ’s working practice of not indicting a sitting president, and Barr’s own statement that “If you’re not going to indict someone, you don’t stand up there and unload negative information about the person.”

Congressional Democrats have already promised to subpoena the full report if its results aren’t made public.

“We will bring Bob Mueller in to testify before Congress. We will take it to court if necessary,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff said on ABC News’ This Week in February. “And in the end, I think the [Justice] Department understands they’re going to have to make this public. I think [Attorney General William P.] Barr will ultimately understand that, as well.”

Citing “significant public interest” in Mueller’s findings, House Dems have also written to the DOJ and demanded the report be released “without delay and to the maximum extent permitted by law.”

Suffice it to say, when Mueller is finally done with his investigation, which is reportedly happening in the next few weeks, the fight over just who gets to see what he’s found will be far from over.

Illustration: Jim Cooke (Getty)

And what does Trump think of all this?

Aside from insisting that it’s entirely up to Barr whether or not to release the report, the president’s been pretty single-minded when it comes to what he thinks of Mueller’s work.

You get the idea.

So where do we go from here?

Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Buddy, your guess is as good as mine.

Until Mueller actually files his mythical report, the general public, and most of Congress, are pretty much in the dark about what he’ll say he’s found—and what to do about it. Hardcore Russia-gate believers think the report will be a silver bullet that’ll lock the president and his entire family behind bars for the rest of their lives. Avowed Fox News viewers, taking their cues from the president, think the whole thing is a farce. And legal analysts—including former U.S. Attorney-turned-Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani—argue that no matter what Mueller finds, he can’t indict a sitting president anyway.

OK but what could happen?

Lots. We’re in fairly uncharted territory here, so any possible scenarios are wild speculation at best, but broadly we’re looking at a few possible outcomes:

Mueller indicts Trump.

This would be the biggest, most sensational outcome: A sitting president indicted for some as-of-yet unspecified crime. It’s unclear how an indictment of Trump would be taken by lawmakers in Washington, but there’s a good chance it would ratchet up talk of—if not directly contribute to—impeachment proceedings against the president from congressional Democrats.

Mueller doesn’t indict Trump.

The SCO’s report could very well be less of a charging document and more of a guidebook for Congress to act on (or not!) themselves. Still, anything short of a direct indictment (or directions for Congress to start impeachment proceedings) will likely be taken by Trump and his supporters as proof-positive that the entire investigation has been a waste of time and money, and that there was “No collusion!

Mueller’s report stays a secret.

If this happens, expect Democrats—and maybe a few Republicans too—to fight tooth and nail to force the DOJ to make the Mueller report as available to the public as possible. This means using congressional subpoenas, and even taking it “to court if necessary,” according to Rep. Adam Schiff.

The 2020 election.

No matter which of the above scenarios come to fruition, there’s a 100 percent chance that the Mueller report will play a major role in the upcoming presidential election; Democrats will almost certainly milk its findings—and/or any decision not to make those findings public—for all they’re worth as they attempt to make Trump a one-term president. Similarly, expect Republicans and their allies to seize upon even the smallest potential whiff of an exoneration to slam Democrats as having wasted the public’s time and money.

And, yeah, the president will probably tweet a bunch.

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About the author

Rafi Schwartz

Senior writer. When in doubt he'll have the soup.