Mueller probe 'close to being completed': acting U.S. attorney general

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election is close to wrapping up, Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker told reporters on Monday.

“I’ve been fully briefed on the investigation and I look forward to Director Mueller delivering the final report,” he said at a press conference on U.S. charges against China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd.

“Right now the investigation is I think close to being completed and I hope that we can get the report from Director Mueller as soon as possible.”

Whitaker’s comments mark the first time a top government official with knowledge of the investigation has publicly confirmed the probe is in its final stages.

Media outlets have reported that Mueller’s office could be close to issuing a final report on his investigation.

But Mueller has been tight-lipped about when the months of closed-door grand jury sessions and criminal charges will conclude, leaving questions over how far into the White House his probe will reach and what will happen to his findings.

Mueller’s investigation most recently ensnared a long-time confidant of President Donald Trump, political operative Roger Stone.

FILE PHOTO: Special Counsel Robert Mueller departs after briefing the U.S. House Intelligence Committee on his investigation of potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein/File Photo

Others in Trump’s orbit have also been charged in the probe, including Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, his former campaign deputy, Richard Gates, and his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Trump’s nominee to fill the attorney general post permanently, William Barr, recently pledged to make public as much of the report as possible, saying Mueller is required to file it confidentially.

But Barr has declined to pledge to release Mueller’s report in its entirety, saying that some portions might need to remain confidential, such as decisions not to charge certain individuals.

Russia denies any wrongdoing in the 2016 election. Trump has repeatedly said he was not involved in any collusion with Russia and has often referred to the probe as a “witch hunt.”

Whitaker’s comments about the Mueller investigation are likely to trigger further inquiries from Democrats who have accused him of being illegally appointed and failing to heed ethics advice suggesting he should recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation.

He is due to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on February 8, where he is expected to be peppered with questions over his role in the Mueller probe and whether he has taken steps to narrow it or limit what Mueller can investigate.

Whitaker was installed as acting attorney general in November, after Trump ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Prior to joining the Justice Department as Sessions’ chief of staff in 2017, Whitaker served as a conservative media pundit and made multiple comments raising skepticism about Mueller’s investigation.

Those comments, coupled with Whitaker’s friendship with Trump’s 2016 election co-chair, Sam Clovis, have raised questions about whether Whitaker should recuse himself.

At Monday’s press conference, Whitaker publicly addressed questions about his past statements on the Mueller probe, saying he made those comments as a private citizen who had access only to publicly available information.

Reporting by Andy Sullivan and Sarah N. Lynch; Writing by Lisa Lambert; editing by Dan Grebler