President Donald Trump gave an interview with the Daily Caller that was published Thursday morning, that’s being treated like a much bigger deal than it is. Trump was asked whether he would “sign off” on Special Counsel Robert Mueller‘s report for the Russia investigation—whenever that is submitted—and said he would leave it to the Justice Department.
“They’ll have to make their decision within the Justice Department,” Trump said. “They will make the decision as to what they do.”
The Daily Caller treated this like some significant, news-making decision on the part of the president, with a headline “EXCLUSIVE: TRUMP SAYS HE WILL LEAVE MUELLER REPORT DECISION TO DOJ.” Rather than being a gracious gesture from Trump, however, it’s literally what the special counsel regulations say.
28 CFR § 600.8(c) says:
At the conclusion of the Special Counsel’s work, he or she shall provide the Attorney General with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel.
28 CFR § 600.9(a) addresses what the Attorney General does next:
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 … Upon conclusion of the Special Counsels 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 CFR § 600.9(c) then states, “The Attorney General may determine that public release of these reports would be in the public interest, to the extent that release would comply with applicable legal restrictions.”
What’s missing from these regulations? Any mention of the president. He doesn’t have to “sign off” on Mueller’s report. When he says he’s leaving it to the Justice Department, that just means he’s acknowledging that he has no part in this.
CNN legal analyst Elie Honig agrees.
“This is not some concession by Trump. The President is not supposed to have any role whatsoever in the crafting or release of the report, according to the regulations and to the longstanding norm of DOJ functioning independently,” Honig told Law&Crime. “Trump claims he could have shut the investigation down at any time. Maybe but if he had, it would have been at his own political and potentially legal peril.”
Now, in theory, Trump could try to have the special counsel regulations repealed, but he’d have to act fast. Attorney General nominee William Barr is expected to be confirmed in the relatively near future, and he made it very clear that he does not believe the regulations should be changed while Mueller’s investigation is still going on. Changing the regulatio
Maybe Trump meant that he wouldn’t try to influence Barr when it comes to the Attorney General report that goes to Congress, but 1) that’s not Mueller’s report and 2) Barr has repeatedly said he believes in transparency and thinks it’s important for the public to have information about this matter.
The only thing that Trump’s statement means is that the president doesn’t plan on even trying to change the rules and disrupt the whole system. If we’re saying that this is a big deal, that’s setting the bar pretty low.
Ronn Blitzer is the Senior Legal Editor of Law&Crime and a former New York City prosecutor. Follow him on Twitter @RonnBlitzer.
Note: This piece has been updated.
[Image via NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.