WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice is said to be close to completion, but he may set it aside while he finishes other key parts of his probe, such as possible collusion and the hacking of Democrats, according to current and former U.S. officials.
That's because Mueller may calculate that if he tries to bring charges in the obstruction case — the part that may hit closest to Trump personally — witnesses may become less cooperative in other parts of the probe, or the president may move to shut it down altogether.
The revelation is a peek into Muller's calculations as he proceeds with his many-headed probe, while pressure builds from the president's advisers and other Republicans to show progress or wrap it up.
The obstruction portion of the probe could likely be completed after several key outstanding interviews, including with the president and his son, Donald Trump Jr. The president's lawyers have been negotiating with Mueller's team over such an encounter since late last year. But even if Trump testifies in the coming weeks, Mueller may make a strategic calculation to keep his findings on obstruction secret, according to the current and former U.S. officials, who discussed the strategy on condition of anonymity.
Any clear outcome of the obstruction inquiry could be used against Mueller: Filing charges against Trump or his family could prompt the president to take action to fire him. Publicly clearing Trump of obstruction charges — as the president's lawyers have requested — could be used by his allies to build pressure for the broader investigation to be shut down.
Other key matters under investigation by Mueller's team, with its 17 career prosecutors, include whether Trump or any of his associates helped Russia meddle in the 2016 campaign. Mueller is also expected to indict some of those responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee before the election and publicly leaking stolen material in an effort to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The timing for whether — and when — to interview Trump or his family members is one of the most sensitive decisions Mueller faces at this stage of his investigation. The special counsel's office declined to comment for this story.
Trump, who has branded the probe a "witch hunt," is growing increasingly frustrated as Mueller's work continues, and the president's lawyers have signaled that they expect the investigation to wrap up quickly.
Recent reports provide a glimpse into how expansive and aggressive Mueller's investigation is. The New York Times and The Washington Post, for example, suggest Muller's team recently began probing efforts by the United Arab Emirates to influence the Trump team, including a meeting the Gulf kingdom apparently helped organize in the Seychelles where an informal Trump adviser also met with a Russian banker.
The Post also reported that Mueller has been asking about several Russia-related incidents involving longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, including his role in trying to help the Trump Organization build a tower in Moscow in 2015.
When it comes to the obstruction portion of the investigation, Mueller is said to be focused on three main episodes: Trump's firing of FBI Director James Comey last May; the drafting of a misleading statement about the purpose of a June 2016 meeting between Don Jr., Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and a group of Russians at Trump Tower; and the disclosure that Trump considered firing Mueller last June.
Mueller's team of FBI agents and prosecutors has already interviewed people who could provide firsthand knowledge of possible obstruction of justice, including Comey, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers.
Mueller also has turned Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, into a cooperating witness. He has interviewed more than four dozen White House and campaign aides and requested more than 1.4 million pages of documents, according to Trump's lawyers.
Kushner spoke to Mueller early on in the investigation for a limited interview, while Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter who is also an adviser, have yet to be interviewed, according to a person familiar with the investigation.
There is also no indication that Mueller has yet interviewed Trump's former bodyguard Keith Schiller, who was at Trump's side on a trip to Moscow and during each day of the campaign and his presidency until he resigned over the summer. When Trump moved to fire Comey, Schiller hand-delivered the note to the FBI.