Robert Mueller Wishes You’d Read His Report

The special counsel is a man out of time, a by-the-book throwback who expects Americans to absorb carefully worded documents.

Robert Mueller
Jim Bourg / Reuters

About the author: Ken White is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, an attorney at Brown White & Osborn LLP in Los Angeles, and a former federal prosecutor. He practices First Amendment law, civil litigation, and criminal defense.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller wishes that you’d read his report. He’s not angry; he’s just disappointed.

When the Department of Justice announced Mueller’s press conference Wednesday morning, the media exploded in a frenzy of wild speculation. What new evidence might he reveal? Would he endorse impeachment? Would he complain about the administration’s response to his report? No, he would not. Nobody who has paid attention to Mueller’s pattern of behavior expected him to do anything of the sort. Instead, Mueller assumed the pained tones of a teacher who must read the instructions to the class again. The answers to all of our questions, he intoned repeatedly, are in his report.

Mueller characterized Wednesday’s appearance as merely an opportunity to summarize what he had done on the occasion of the formal conclusion of his investigation and his return to private life. But even if he did not explicitly set out to quell rumors and conspiracy theories, his calm recitation ought to have that effect. (Whether it will is another matter.)

Notably, Mueller undermined a scandalous book before it could even reach the shelves. This week The Guardian reported that in his forthcoming tell-all, Siege, Michael Wolff claims that Mueller’s office drafted an obstruction-of-justice indictment against President Donald Trump. Mueller, Wolff claims, wrestled with the question of whether it’s permissible to indict a sitting president. But Mueller unequivocally refuted that accusation today without even mentioning it. He repeated what he wrote in his report: He views the Department of Justice policy against indicting a sitting president as binding, and believes that was “not an option we could consider.” That’s no surprise. Federal prosecutors decide to indict and then draft the indictment, not the other way around. Wolff’s story was never credible.

Mueller elaborated that since he could not indict the president, and because there was no other mechanism for the executive branch to accuse him of a crime, it was inappropriate to offer a conclusion about whether or not Trump obstructed justice. This, too, was straight from his report. The only glimmer of a new idea today was Mueller’s comment that indicting a sitting president is unconstitutional. It was not clear whether he was simply stating the Department of Justice position or endorsing it, but for a rule-follower like Mueller, that’s a distinction without a difference.

The now ex–special counsel also disappointed anyone hoping to hear kvetching about Attorney General William Barr. We know that Mueller expressed his concerns to Barr in March about Barr’s initial summary, which Mueller suggested did not adequately capture the report’s substance. But Mueller refrained from criticizing Barr, noting that he did not question Barr’s “good faith” in how he went about the process. This was not a surprise either. Barr has sounded more and more like a Trump partisan since he released the Mueller report, but he followed the rules when he received, evaluated, minimally redacted, and eventually released it.

Wednesday’s press conference was consistent with Mueller’s image as a classic just-the-facts-ma’am G-man, a persona that frustrates anti-Trump partisans who dreamed of him as an avenging superhero. But a bit of passion shone through in two areas.

First, Mueller was adamant that his team had not exonerated the president of obstruction of justice. “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” he said rather sternly. Mueller also implicitly rebuked those who dismiss obstruction as a mere “process crime” unworthy of attention, saying that it “strikes at the core of the government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.” If he hoped this notion would take root in the Trump administration, it was in vain; Trump immediately claimed that Mueller found insufficient evidence of obstruction.

Second, Mueller seemed concerned that Americans have focused on what Trump did rather than on what Russia did. He described his conclusions about overt Russian interference in the 2016 elections, and closed by repeating that “there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election and that allegation deserves the attention of every American.” Mueller’s frustration is justified: Russia’s aggressive misconduct seems to have been lost in the shuffle.

Mueller is a man out of time. This is the age of alternatively factual tweets and sound bites; he’s a by-the-book throwback who expects Americans to read and absorb carefully worded 400-page reports. Has he met us? His high standards sometimes manifest as touching naïveté. “I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak to you in this manner,” Mueller said today, explaining that his report was his testimony and that Congress should not expect him to answer questions with any new information.

If he thinks that reprimand will deter Congress , he doesn’t grasp why Congress would summon him to testify. Our representatives don’t need the answers as much as they need to be seen on camera asking the questions. The rough beast of 2020 slouches toward us. Names can be made, primaries won and lost, and profiles elevated by those questions, whether they support Trump or condemn him. Washington is no place for a rule-follower.