WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump’s lawyers and special counsel Robert Mueller are hurtling toward a showdown over a yearlong investigation into the president’s conduct, with Mueller pushing to write up his findings by summer’s end and Trump’s lawyers strategizing how to rebut a report that could spur impeachment hearings.
The confrontation is coming to a head as Trump and his allies ratchet up their attacks on the special counsel probe, seizing on a report released Thursday by the Justice Department’s inspector general that castigated FBI officials for their conduct during the 2016 Hillary Clinton email investigation.
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, said that he planned to use the inspector general’s conclusions to undermine Mueller, suggesting he may ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions to appoint a second special counsel to examine the current probe.
“We want to see if we can have the investigation and special counsel declared illegal and unauthorized,” Giuliani said in an interview Friday.
In the meantime, Trump must decide whether to do a face-to-face interview with Mueller’s team - an answer the president’s legal team expects to have in the next two weeks.
If the president agreed to a sit-down, the special counsel has told Trump’s lawyers that he could finish within roughly 90 days a report on whether Trump sought to obstruct a probe into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, according to two people familiar with the discussions. A separate report outlining Mueller’s broader findings on Russian attempts to bolster Trump’s candidacy is expected to take longer.
The confidential obstruction report, which would be delivered to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, is expected to contain the prosecutors’ conclusions about whether Trump engaged in any criminal wrongdoing by trying to derail the investigation into his campaign’s contact with Russians, according to the people.
The filing of the report could trigger a political firestorm over whether to make the special counsel’s findings public - just as this fall’s midterm campaign season kicks off.
“It’ll be a moment that polarizes the country, exposing just how divided the country is about this investigation and who’s on the other side, said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who added that he and other Trump allies are “prepared for war.”
Among those suited up for battle: the president’s attorneys, who are readying to write a rebuttal disputing any conclusions that the president’s actions were improper or illegal.
At the center of that standoff would be Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller probe. Friends and foes predict he would face intense pushback over every aspect of the report - when to release the information to Congress, whether to refer the report to Congress to consider impeachment and whether to make any aspect of the report public.
“He’s the final decision-maker,” said Giuliani, adding: “There will be pressure from all ways.”
Rosenstein, who has repeatedly sought to defuse attacks on the Justice Department by the president and his congressional allies, has indicated he will only bend so far. Last month, after House Republicans threatened to impeach him for withholding investigative documents, he warned that “the Department of Justice is not going to be extorted.”
A spokesman for Rosenstein declined to comment.
That round of political and legal drama could be delayed until after the November elections if Mueller decides to hold back the report to avoid releasing it too close to Election Day, or if Trump refuses an interview and the special counsel tries to issue a subpoena, kicking off a lengthy court struggle.
In the meantime, anticipation for Mueller’s report has put Washington on a kind of emergency storm watch.
“What we’re going through now is a walk in the park compared to what’s coming when the report [on Trump’s conduct] comes out,” said Peter Wehner, a Trump critic who has advised several past Republican presidents. “Even if the report is a devastating indictment of Trump, the political tribalism in the country is so deep and won’t suddenly go away.”
For months, Trump has been setting the stage by repeatedly attacking the Justice Department and the FBI and accusing Mueller of waging a “witch hunt” against him - language echoed by White House officials and Giuliani.
After the Justice Department’s inspector general released his findings Thursday, Giuliani said he and fellow Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow conferred about legal options they could take to stymie Mueller - including possibly sending a letter to the Justice Department raising questions about the credibility of the special counsel investigation. They also discussed whether to ask Sessions to appoint a second special counsel to investigate the Mueller probe, based on the inspector general’s report and some FBI agents’ conduct, Giuliani said.
“We’re going to take the weekend to talk it all through, with our team and with the president,” Giuliani said.
The Mueller investigation is already facing internal scrutiny. Last month, under pressure from Trump, the Justice Department asked its inspector general to assess whether political motivation tainted the FBI investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign after revelations that a longtime FBI source secretly assisted the probe.
The attacks by the president and his advisers on the special counsel appear to be having an impact: Public support for Mueller’s investigation has been gradually eroding. A Quinnipiac University poll taken in early June found that 50 percent of registered voters say Mueller is conducting a fair investigation, a drop of 10 points since November.
While Trump’s lawyers ponder ways to rupture the investigation, the president has dwindling time to decide whether to sit down for an interview with the special counsel. The idea is sharply opposed by many of his allies and advisers.
“Listen, I don’t trust these people as far as I can throw them,” his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., told Fox News on Thursday. “I wouldn’t do it. I think it’d be stupid.”
Giuliani said he expects Trump to make a final decision on an interview by the end of June.
“He wants to do it, but he doesn’t want to do it if he’s being taken advantage of,” he said.
If Trump refuses an interview, Mueller will have to decide his next move.
Doug Kmiec, a legal scholar on presidential power and a former Reagan administration Justice official who knew Mueller from his prior work at the department, said the special counsel wants - but does not need - to question the president to finish his report.
“He wants to give the president an opportunity to explain any ambiguity and any impression that he was favoring a foreign adversary,” Kmiec said. “Robert Mueller would say it would be irresponsible not to give the president a chance to explain himself.”
If Trump declines to do a sit-down and the special counsel decides not to pursue a subpoena of the president, Mueller could deliver an obstruction report to Rosenstein in the coming months.
However, former prosecutors and colleagues of Mueller predict he will probably avoid any public action six to eight weeks before the November midterm elections, following Justice Department guidance that prosecutors should avoid making moves that could reasonably be expected to affect a political campaign.
The regulations governing Mueller’s investigation, which were written in 1999, require that a special counsel submit a “confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions” reached by the office. Some of Trump’s lawyers believe that limits Mueller solely to describing why he chose to prosecute or not prosecute.
And they argue the rules would frown on Rosenstein releasing to Congress or the public any findings of a grand jury investigation that ended without charges.
The goal of the regulations was to avoid requiring a sprawling public report like the one issued by independent counsel Kenneth Starr at the conclusion of his investigation into President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, said Neal Katyal, who helped write the rules as a Justice Department official.
But, Katyal said, the aim was also to provide flexibility to future Justice Department officials. The regulations would allow Rosenstein to refer the report to Congress, Katyal said, and release it to the public if he decides doing so could better serve the public.
“That is the standard I believe should be applied: what is in the public interest,” he said.
Rosenstein will have near-total control over how the probe concludes and what the public learns about the findings. It will fall to Rosenstein to decide whether Mueller’s report contains findings about Trump that warrant some remedy or punishment by Congress.
It remains to be seen how he will navigate the pressure.
At a speech in Philadelphia earlier this month, Rosenstein appeared to allude to the punches thrown so far and those perhaps coming his way, quoting the classic boxing movie “Rocky.”
“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. . . . But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward,” Rosenstein said. “That advice applies in boxing, in law and in life.”
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The Washington Post’s Scott Clement, Josh Dawsey, Tom Hamburger, Rosalind S. Helderman and Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.