Occasionally, his signature appears on court documents. But on the most consequential days of the nearly two-year investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, the man leading it – Robert Mueller – has been conspicuously absent.
When President Donald Trump’s senior aides and confidants paraded through federal courtrooms to face criminal charges his office had filed, the former FBI director was nowhere to be seen. When some of them came back to court to be convicted, he said nothing.
It’s possible he never will.
Mueller’s investigation has cast a shadow over nearly all of the first two years of Trump’s presidency. Prosecutors working to determine whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russian efforts to sway the election that put him in office have brought charges against some of his top aides and revealed extensive Moscow ties. As the inquiry grinds closer to its conclusion, there are signs that the public might never learn the full extent of what Mueller has – or hasn’t – found.
Justice Department rules require that Mueller submit a confidential report when his work is done. William Barr, the man likely to be confirmed as his next boss, cast doubt on whether he would permit that document to be revealed. Those who know him say Mueller, reluctant to speak publicly even when the circumstances seem to require it, is unlikely to do it on his own.
“A public narrative has built an expectation that the special counsel will explain his conclusions, but I think that expectation may be seriously misplaced,” said John Pistole, Mueller’s longtime top deputy at the FBI. “That’s not what the rules provide, and I really don’t see him straying from the mission. That’s not who he is.”
The Justice Department’s special counsel rules don’t call for Mueller to make any public statements about his work, let alone deliver a report of what he has found. Instead, his confidential report must explain why he filed the charges he did and why he might have declined to bring charges against others. It would be up to the attorney general to decide whether that becomes public.
Barr, who is likely to be confirmed this month as attorney general, told lawmakers he couldn’t commit to releasing Mueller’s report in full. Neither was he clear on whether he would permit Mueller to testify to Congress about his work. He said he wanted to be transparent about Mueller’s findings but offered few details.
“Where judgments are to be made by me, I will make those judgments based solely on the law and department policy and will let no personal, political or other improper interests influence my decision,” Barr said during his confirmation hearing in January.
Some lawmakers found the answer unsettling.
After Barr’s testimony, Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced legislation that would require a special counsel to provide a report directly to Congress in addition to the attorney general.
People who know Mueller say that unless his bosses tried to derail his work, they would be surprised if the former FBI director did more than issue a brief statement indicating that a report had been submitted to the attorney general before quietly departing.
For any other major player in official Washington, where outsize egos routinely clash for political supremacy or simple adulation, such a scenario would be unthinkable. But Mueller’s aversion to the spotlight has been consistent across a lifetime in public service, from the battlefields of Vietnam to the office that represents perhaps the most serious threat to the Trump presidency.
“I don’t think that there is any chance that he strays from what the regulations say,” said Chris Swecker, a former FBI assistant director who worked closely with Mueller. “So far, he has spoken through the indictments and other court documents his office has filed. You have to understand who he is. He will do what the law prescribes; he’s not going to be running his own pass patterns.
“None of this has ever been about his ego,” Swecker said. “He relishes the work as much as he hates the fanfare. It’s never been about him; it’s always been about the work.”
SOURCE: Kevin Johnson and Bart Jansen, USA TODAY