Mueller may submit report to attorney general as soon as mid-February

WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller is nearing the end of his historic investigation into Russian election interference and is expected to submit a confidential report to the attorney general as early as mid-February, government officials and others familiar with the situation tell NBC News.

"They clearly are tying up loose ends," said a lawyer who has been in contact with the Mueller team.

The sources either did not know or would not say whether Mueller has answered the fundamental question he was hired to investigate: Whether Trump or anyone around him conspired with the Russian intelligence operations to help his campaign.

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Mueller has not made public any evidence proving such a conspiracy, though he has rebutted in court filings the president's assertion that neither he nor any of his top aides had met or talked with Russians during the 2016 race. They did, according to Mueller; and, in the case of his lawyer's negotiations over a Trump Tower in Moscow, Trump knew about it, court filings say.

Mueller has also examined the question whether the president obstructed justice, and is expected to address that matter in his report. Whether the special counsel will accuse the president of wrongdoing on that score is unclear.

Image: Former Trump Campaign Manager Paul Manafort Appears In DC Federal Court For Arraignment And Status Hearing

Mueller was appointed in May 2017 in the wake of Trump's decision to fire the FBI director, James Comey. He inherited an FBI investigation that had been launched in July 2016, when intelligence agencies saw indications that people around Trump might be trying to help a Russian effort to boost the Trump presidential candidacy.

He has charged 33 people and convicted three senior Trump associates — former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and lawyer Michael Cohen — who have cooperated with him to varying degrees.

One sign that Mueller is close to finishing, legal experts say, is that he has moved forward with the sentencing of those men — particularly Flynn, who he credited with substantial cooperation, much of which remains secret. Flynn's lawyers agreed to postpone his sentencing this week after it became clear the judge was considering imposing a prison sentence despite Mueller's recommendation of probation.

Generally, prosecutors prefer to delay the sentencing of cooperating witnesses until the case in which they are helping is over, to retain leverage over them and secure their testimony in court.

Mueller's spokesman, Peter Carr, declined to comment. The president's lawyer, Jay Sekulow, said, "We don't discuss conversations we've had or have not had with the office of special counsel."

Defense lawyers in the case have been talking among themselves about their belief that the investigation is coming to an end, two of them said.

Image: Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn Awaits Sentencing After Pleading Guilty To Lying To FBI

The sources who spoke to NBC News warn that a few major outstanding matters could complicate Mueller's endgame. One is Mueller's desire to interview the president about all aspects of his investigation, including obstruction of justice matters about which the president has refused to answer questions.

If Mueller moved to subpoena the president, that could spark months of litigation that could delay his report. A source familiar with the matter says Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker would have to approve any such subpoena.

Vice President Pence has not been interviewed by the special counsel and has not appeared before his grand jury, according to a person familiar with his status in the investigation. Pence turned over emails to Mueller covering the presidential transition, the person said.

Whitaker, who made a series of disparaging comments about the Mueller probe as a television commentator, has not recused himself from supervising the investigation, NBC News reported Thursday.

It's not clear whether the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., has been interviewed by Mueller. The president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, spent seven hours answering the special counsel's questions in May, according to his lawyer, Abbe Lowell.

Michael Cohen exits the courthouse after his sentencing in New York

Another piece of unfinished business involves Trump associates Jerome Corsi and Roger Stone. Corsi has said he expects to be indicted for lying to investigators, which he denies, while Stone has told supporters, "Robert Mueller is coming for me," without offering specifics. The House Intelligence Committee voted Thursday to release a transcript of its interview with Stone at Mueller's request, a sign that that the special counsel could be moving to charge him. Corsi and Stone say they have done nothing wrong.

Mueller's report is not expected to address the separate investigation by New York federal prosecutors in which Cohen has implicated the president in a campaign finance felony. That investigation appears to be continuing, and Trump also will still have to contend with inquiries by the New York Attorney General and Congress.

U.S. officials familiar with the matter say the Justice Department and Congress have been planning for the delivery of a report by Mueller, on the assumption that at least some part of it would be made public. That would not be an easy process, given the extent to which the investigation has relied on classified information and grand jury testimony that is secret by law.

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 28: Former FBI director Robert Mueller attends the ceremonial swearing-in of FBI Director James Comey at the FBI Headquarters October 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. Comey was officially sworn in as director of FBI on September 4 to succeed Mueller who had served as director for 12 years. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama applauds outgoing Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) director Robert Mueller (L) in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on June 21, 2013 as he nominates Jim Comey to be the next FBI director. Comey, a deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, would replace Mueller, who is stepping down from the agency he has led since the week before the September 11, 2001 attacks. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller applauds key staff members during a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW HEADSHOT)
391489 03: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a conference as he stands with Justice Department veteran Robert Mueller, left, who he has nominated to head the FBI, and Attorney General John Ashcroft July 5, 2001 the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller stands for the national anthem during a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) reacts to a standing ovation from the audience, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (C) and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (R) during Mueller's farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller gestures during his remarks at a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
FILE PHOTO -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) and FBI Director Robert Mueller speak about possible terrorist threats against the United States, in Washington, May 26, 2004. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller reacts to applause from the audience during his farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and FBI Director Robert Mueller make their way to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (C) delivers remarks at a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Also onstage with Mueller are Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (FROM L), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA Director George Tenet and TSA Administrator John Pistole. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: (L-R) Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton attend the National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol May 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Holder and other members of the Obama administration are being criticized over reports of the Internal Revenue Services' scrutiny of conservative organization's tax exemption requests and the subpoena of two months worth of Associated Press journalists' phone records. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Federal Bureau of Investigation oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington June 13, 2013. Mueller said on Thursday that the U.S. government is doing everything it can to hold confessed leaker Edward Snowden accountable for splashing surveillance secrets across the pages of newspapers worldwide. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (L) welcomes FBI Director Robert Mueller during their meeting in Kiev June 5, 2013. REUTERS/Efrem Lukatsky/Pool (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS)
FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) arrives for the Obama presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington. President Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States. Woman at right is unidentified. REUTERS/Win McNamee-POOL (UNITED STATES)
WASHINGTON, : FBI Director Robert Mueller answers questions before Congress 17 October 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mueller was testifying before the House and Senate Select Intelligence committees' final open hearing investigating events leading up to the September 11, 2001. AFP Photos/Stephen JAFFE (Photo credit should read STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)
(L-R) CIA Director Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director Robert Mueller testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 16, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
399994 02: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller visits the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller (L) stand during the National Anthem alongside Attorney General Eric Holder (R) and Deputy Attorney General James Cole (C) during a farewell ceremony in Mueller's honor at the Department of Justice on August 1, 2013. Mueller is retiring from the FBI after 12-years as Director. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
399994 01: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller greets American forces on the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: FBI Director Robert Mueller, center, talks with Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, talk before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 06: OVERSIGHT HEARING ON COUNTERTERRORISM--Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, before the hearing. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
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A Vietnam combat veteran who led the FBI after the 9/11 attacks, Mueller is not operating under the Independent Counsel statute that governed Kenneth Starr, whose salacious and controversial report about Bill Clinton's affair with a White House intern was delivered to Congress and the public at the same time in 1998, causing a sensation.

In Mueller's case, the acting attorney general, Whitaker, would receive the report and would have to decide what do to with it.

The regulations governing the special counsel say the special counsel "shall provide the Attorney General with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel."

The Justice Department is likely to make some aspect of the report public, sources say. House Democrats, who will have subpoena power as of January, have said they will do everything they can to make sure it sees the light of day.

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