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Mueller readies next steps for Trump probe with uncertainty at DOJ

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Special Counsel Robert Mueller, now freed from the constraints of his pre-election quiet period, must decide on the next steps in his high-profile investigation of Russian meddling and the role of President Donald Trump.

[WASHINGTON] Special Counsel Robert Mueller, now freed from the constraints of his pre-election quiet period, must decide on the next steps in his high-profile investigation of Russian meddling and the role of President Donald Trump.

But Mr Mueller still faces the prospect of a shake-up in the Justice Department's leadership. Mr Trump has signaled widely that he may replace Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and the fate of the man supervising Mr Mueller's probe, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, also remains unclear.

With that possibility hanging over him, Mr Mueller may feel extra pressure to complete his work as quickly as possible. A replacement for Mr Sessions or Mr Rosenstein could fire him or rein in the probe that Mr Trump regularly denounces as a "witch hunt" fueled by anti-Trump sentiment in the Justice Department and the FBI.

Mr Mueller is conducting an expansive investigation that includes Russia's interference in the 2016 election, whether anyone close to Mr Trump colluded with the Russians and whether the president sought to obstruct justice. Ousting the special prosecutor would probably produce bipartisan protests in Congress, with Democrats opening investigations once they take control of the House in January.

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Mr Mueller is expected to soon produce some investigative findings on collusion and obstruction of justice, according to two US officials with knowledge of the matter who asked to not be identified speaking about the probe. Mr Mueller already was facing intensifying pressure from Mr Trump and Republican lawmakers to produce more indictments or shut down his operation.

Unless the findings result in new indictments or subpoenas that are made public, they might stay secret. As Mr Mueller's supervisor, Mr Rosenstein or a new acting attorney general would decide whether to make his findings public or share them with congressional committees.

Mr Mueller is unlikely to say anything. The former FBI director hasn't said a word publicly since he was named in May 2017, letting his indictments speak for him. He's been quiet even on that front in recent weeks under Justice Department guidelines that say prosecutors should avoid any major steps close to an election that could be seen as influencing the outcome.

While there's no indication that Mr Rosenstein is pressuring Mr Mueller to conclude the investigation, he has made it clear that he wants it wrapped up as expeditiously as possible.

Even a new supervisor determined to halt Mr Mueller's work could go only so far in halting the cascade of investigative moves he's already set off. His team of prosecutors have several deeply developed cases that are being litigated in US courts, and they have farmed out some matters to other Justice Department components such as the US attorney in Manhattan.

Mr Mueller is in the process of tying down loose ends, according to one official. To date, he's secured indictments against more than two dozen Russians for interfering in the 2016 election, as well as guilty pleas from top aides on Trump's presidential campaign, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Both are cooperating with Mr Mueller.

Several matters could keep Mr Mueller's probe going well into 2019, such as another significant prosecution or new lines of inquiry. And because the investigation has been proceeding out of the public eye, there may have been other major developments behind the scenes.

Mr Mueller only recently submitted written questions to Mr Trump's lawyers regarding potential collusion with Russia, and his team hasn't yet ruled out seeking an interview with the president, according to one official. If Mr Trump refused an interview request, Mr Mueller could face the complicated question of whether to seek a grand jury subpoena of the president. The Justice Department has a standing policy that a sitting president can't be indicted.

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