Why Mueller's report might be a letdown for Trump critics

WASHINGTON, March 6 (Reuters) - A lavishly detailed 445-page report by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr released by the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998 concluded that President Bill Clinton "committed acts that may constitute grounds for an impeachment" and paved the way for an unsuccessful attempt in Congress to remove him from office.

But Special Counsel Robert Mueller's impending report on the findings of his investigation into Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. election may far fall short of the searing and voluminous Starr report, legal experts said, in part due to constraints on Mueller that did not exist when Starr produced his report.

The Starr report presented explicit details about Clinton's sexual encounters with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky and accused Clinton of specific crimes including perjury, attempted obstruction of justice, witness tampering and "a pattern of conduct that was inconsistent with his constitutional duty to faithfully execute the laws."

Starr operated under an independent counsel law that has since lapsed. Mueller's powers differ from those of Starr, and Justice Department regulations place limits on him that Starr did not face. Mueller since May 2017 has looked into whether Trump's 2016 campaign conspired with Russia and whether the president unlawfully sought to obstruct the probe.

Trump has denied collusion and obstruction. Russia has denied election interference.

Here is an explanation of some of the factors that may limit what ends up in Mueller's report to U.S. Attorney General William Barr and what ultimately may be released to the public.

WHAT DO JUSTICE DEPARTMENT REGULATIONS CALL FOR?

Congress let the independent counsel law expire in part because of concern among some lawmakers that Starr had exceeded his mandate. The Justice Department then crafted regulations to create the job of special counsel in 1999, with certain limits on powers.

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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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The department's No. 2 official, Rod Rosenstein, appointed Mueller to take over the Russia investigation after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, whose agency had led the probe, and directed Mueller to abide by the special counsel regulations.

But the regulations provide only limited guidance on the parameters of Mueller's final report, stating that at the conclusion of his work he should provide the U.S. attorney general, the nation's top law enforcement official, with a "confidential report" explaining his "prosecution or declination decisions." The term "declination decisions" refers to judgments that Mueller made not to bring criminal charges against a given individual. Mueller already has brought charges against 34 people - including the former chairman of Trump's campaign Paul Manafort and other campaign figures, Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen and former national security adviser Michael Flynn - and three Russian companies.

The regulations require Barr to notify the top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate Judiciary Committees that Mueller's investigation has concluded. The Justice Department's policy calls for Barr to summarize the confidential report for Congress with "an outline of the actions and the reasons for them." According to the regulations, Barr "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 HAS BARR SAID ABOUT WHAT HE WILL RELEASE?

In his January Senate confirmation hearing, Barr provided some insight into his thinking. He said that "it is very important that the public and Congress be informed of the results of the special counsel's work." Barr added, "For that reason, my goal will be to provide as much transparency as I can consistent with the law. I can assure you that, where judgments are to be made by me, I will make those judgments based solely on the law and will let no personal, political or other improper interests influence my decision."

House Democrats have vowed to subpoena the report and go to court if necessary to win its full release.

WHAT WILL MUELLER'S REPORT LOOK LIKE?

Some legal experts said the text of the 1999 regulations and the context under which they were written in the aftermath of the Starr report signal that Mueller should not write a lengthy narrative like Starr did, but rather deliver straightforward and concise findings. The regulations were intended to give a special counsel some independence while ensuring a degree of accountability and oversight by the Justice Department.

But some experts said Mueller would be well within his power to provide Congress with information it can use to conduct further investigations. Leon Jaworski, who served as a special prosecutor during President Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal, adopted this approach when he finished his investigation. Jaworski's "road map" document, which helped prompt Nixon's resignation, remained secret until 2018.

Comey, in a Washington Post opinion piece on Tuesday, urged Barr to make an expansive release, saying "a straightforward report of what facts have been learned and how judgment has been exercised may be the only way to advance the public interest."

PROOF BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT

There is a tension between a decades-old Justice Department policy against public comment on decisions not to bring criminal charges and the requirement in the special counsel regulations that Mueller explain which criminal cases he brought and which ones he declined to bring. Rosenstein in February said, "If we aren't prepared to prove our case beyond a reasonable doubt in court, then we have no business making allegations against American citizens."

This policy might lead Mueller to keep his explanations of his declination decisions brief, legal experts said, and Barr subsequently could opt not to disclose those parts of the confidential report. Department policy, presented in a 1973 Nixon-era memo and reaffirmed in a 2000 Clinton-era memo, is that a sitting president cannot face a criminal indictment.

Some lawyers have said this policy, combined with the practice of generally not explaining decisions not to prosecute someone, limits what Mueller can put in the report about Trump's conduct. Other lawyers have said Jaworski, who had an analogous role, set a precedent that Mueller would be within his power to lay out a case for removing Trump from office through impeachment, as Starr did with Clinton in 1998.

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