Endgame: Mueller may wrap up obstruction probe early as chances of interview with Trump fade

He had been holding off on ending the probe and issuing a final report because Trump, for completely inexplicable reasons and over the objections of every lawyer in America, seemed gung ho to sit down with him and answer questions. Trump’s confidence in being able to BS his way out of literally anything is understandable, but when you’re invited to talk to someone who can send you to prison for lying to them, the answer to that RSVP is always and everywhere “nopers.”

So if nothing else good comes from the Michael Cohen raid for Trump, at least it seems to have soured him on his bananas idea to do an interview with the special counsel. And if Mueller no longer has to wait around for answers from him, there’s nothing stopping him from wrapping up his obstruction report now. The hoped-for timeline, per WaPo last week, was to have it out by June or July. The new timeline, according to NBC, could have it out next month.

This summer will be a hot one!

Prior to Monday’s raid, Mueller’s team had been aiming to finalize a report on its findings on whether the president has tried to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation in the coming months, as early as May or as late as July, three sources said. That timeline hinged in part on reaching a decision on a presidential interview, these people said. One person familiar with the investigation described a decision on an interview as one of the last steps Mueller was seeking to take before closing his investigation into obstruction.

Now, according to two sources, Mueller’s team may be able to close the obstruction probe more quickly as they will not need to prepare for the interview or follow up on what the president says

Three sources familiar with the investigation said the findings Mueller has collected on Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice include: His intent for firing former FBI Director James Comey; his role in the crafting of a misleading public statement on the nature of a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son and Russians; Trump’s dangling of pardons before grand jury witnesses who might testify against him; and pressuring Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

Mueller’s office supposedly doesn’t leak but NBC sure seems to have a firm idea about what the obstruction case will consist of. (On the other hand, all of those matters have been reported out in detail by the media over the past year.) “Two people familiar with the investigation said they expect a flurry of activity from Mueller’s office on the investigation in the next six weeks around the one-year anniversary of his appointment as special counsel,” the story adds. Mueller was named special counsel on May 17. Is that the new target date for issuing the obstruction report?

Don’t forget, either: That report won’t be issued publicly, at least at first. It’ll be issued to the one man to whom Mueller is accountable, the deputy Attorney General. Coincidentally, there’s a *lot* of noise coming from the White House right now about firing, or maybe just discrediting, the deputy Attorney General. It sounds from this CNN report like Trump’s near-term strategy is to wage a public political war against, uh, his own handpicked second-in-command at the Department of Justice. Maybe that’s a prelude to firing Rosenstein or, if Trump is persuaded that that would be a bridge too far, it’s at least a way to persuade Republicans to disbelieve anything damning about Trump that’s coming from Mueller and Rosenstein. Out: Fake news. In: Fake probe!

The one decent argument the White House has against Rosenstein is to ask why he hasn’t recused himself from the Russiagate matter like Sessions did since Rosenstein is, after all, a witness to the Comey firing, a key part of the obstruction investigation. How can he oversee an investigation that he’s part of? You’ve heard that off and on from them over the past year but never with any consistency. (Why not?) You might hear Trump and his surrogates mention it more frequently in the coming weeks:

The White House is preparing talking points designed to undermine Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s credibility, according to sources familiar with the plan…

One area of conflict the White House wants its surrogates to highlight: Rosenstein’s role as a key witness to the Comey firing, sources said. Rosenstein wrote the memo justifying Comey’s dismissal. It centered on his conduct in investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of private email.

The White House is also hoping Trump’s defenders will paint Rosenstein and Comey as close colleagues and argue that Rosenstein is approving an ever-expanding investigation against Trump and his associates as retribution.

“It’s payback for the President firing one of his best friends,” a source said.

A source close to Rosenstein told CNN that he and Comey aren’t friends, which is probably true. Remember how harsh his memo about Comey’s handling of Emailgate was? A friend would have pulled his punches a bit more, but go figure that since Trump personalizes all of his professional relationships that the White House would try to impose that frame on the Rosenstein/Comey relationship. If there’s any “payback” happening by Rosenstein in the Russiagate probe, in fact, it probably has to do with his resentment that he was asked to write that memo about Comey in the first place. After Comey was fired and Trump made clear that it was how Comey had handled Russiagate, not Emailgate, that really bothered him, Rosenstein looked like a chump. To all appearances, he had provided the president with a fig leaf from the DOJ to justify a firing that seemed to others to be an attempt to obstruct the Russia probe. Rosenstein may have appointed Mueller as a way to repair his and the Department’s image by showing that it wasn’t doing political favors for the president but was prepared to continue the investigation despite his disapproval.

Anyway, if Trump’s going to fire Rosenstein — and let’s face it, he is — when’s the best time to do it? There’s no good time, but when’s the best time? If he does it before Mueller issues his report on obstruction of justice, Rosenstein’s firing will become a new chapter in that report. Trump will strengthen the case against him before it’s gone to the jury of public opinion. On the other hand, if he waits to fire Rosenstein until after Mueller issues his report, Rosenstein might publish Mueller’s findings and/or refer to the matter to Congress for impeachment before he’s canned. Trump should logically want someone new in place before that, to receive the report from Mueller once it’s ready and give Trump some leverage over what to do with it once it is. It’s unimaginable that a new deputy AG who’s loyal to Trump could get away with sticking the report in a drawer somewhere and never releasing it but a loyalist could release it with his own skeptical commentary or contrary findings appended, maybe. Or he could refer it to Congress with his personal conclusion that the matters described therein don’t rise to the level of impeachable offenses, which would be enough legal cover to let the House GOP do what it wants to do about all this, which is nothing.

Exit question: What does POTUS do when the next in line at the DOJ after Rosenstein, solicitor general Noel Francisco, also refuses to rein in Mueller or “protect” Trump from him?

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