Only Mueller's Team Knows What It's Actually Doing

With so little public information about a highly important probe, the urge to interpret—and overinterpret—each new morsel is strong.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Washington sometimes comes to resemble the sitting president. Like Donald Trump, the political and media establishments of the moment have come to expect—nay, demand—instant gratification. Trump’s chaotic style have produced an unintentional experiment in unprecedented White House transparency, in which a senior aide can barely sneeze without seven colleagues telling The Washington Post about it. This in turn has created the expectation that any new development will soon be explained with detailed accounts of what the major players are thinking and what their motivations are—sometimes relayed by anonymous sources, but occasionally, as with Anthony Scaramucci, delivered in shockingly vivid terms by the principals themselves.

In this strange new normal, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation seems especially odd. Such a probe—with the power to alter or even end the path of a presidency—would always be the subject of fascination, but combined with expectation of instant answers, the secretiveness of Mueller’s team has made the few crumbs which have emerged the subject of particularly fevered speculation.

Take the news, on Friday, that Mueller’s team has obtained a draft letter, written for Trump by Stephen Miller, to FBI Director James Comey, explaining why he was being dismissed. According to The New York Times, White House counsel Don McGahn successfully convinced Trump not to send the letter. The Post reports the letter focuses in particular on Comey’s refusal to say publicly that Trump was not under investigation in connection with Russian interference in the election.  When Comey was fired, the White House released a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein taking issue with Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. But Trump soon indicated, in an interview with NBC News’ Lester Holt, that he had decided to push Comey out over the Russia investigation.

Even as the contents of the Comey letter remain largely unknown, there’s a flotilla of analyses speculating on what might be in it, what it means, and how to interpret the fact that Mueller is considering the letter. The tea-leaf readers had the benefit of already being warmed up from earlier attempts to interpret equally obscure developments.

“It’s the tip of the tip of the iceberg, with no idea what’s below,” said Bruce Green, a professor at Fordham University’s School of Law who worked on the Iran-Contra investigation. “It’s a great parlor game to sit and try to imagine what’s going on in the Mueller investigation or Schneiderman’s investigation, but there’s so little information to go on. We don’t know what evidence they found. That would be good!”

No item exemplifies the temptation to speculate better than a report that Mueller had teamed up with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on his investigation. On Wednesday, NBC News pointed out that while Trump could try to use pardons to stymie a federal case against his aides or associates, that wouldn’t absolve them under state law. So when Politico reported hours later that Schneiderman and Mueller had teamed up, it immediately seeded speculation that Mueller was outflanking Trump on the pardon front.

“I think that’s ridiculous,” Green said, calling the pardon question largely one of academic interest at the moment. “We’re so far from the idea of a president pardoning everybody in sight, at a time when his office is denying that anything illegal happened.”

Maybe Schneiderman and Mueller really are playing the pardon angle. But it’s extremely common for two different authorities to work together on investigations where there’s a shared interest. The New York attorney general has been working on Trump-related issues for years, and he’ll approach any investigation from the standpoint of state law, while Mueller is focused on federal law. Was leaking the collaboration out now an intimidation tactic? Again, maybe—but it’s also plausible that the NBC News story simply spurred reporters to ask around about whether they were working together.

There are plenty of other examples of stories like this. What does it mean when The Daily Beast reports that Mueller is working with the IRS’s Criminal Investigations unit? Does it mean that Trump is under investigation for tax fraud? That Mueller is going after former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort? That he’s going after some Trump associate? Of course, there’s no way to know based on the information that’s available. But in a Trumpified media environment, every development demands instant explanation, or failing that speculation.

Many of the theories in circulation concern Manafort. What is to be made of the fact that Mueller ordered a pre-dawn raid on Manafort’s house, even though he was reportedly cooperating? What about Mueller’s subpoena for a former Manafort spokesman? Does Mueller believe Manafort was withholding documents? Is he trying to get Manafort to “flip” and become a witness against Trump? The tactics were repeatedly described as “aggressive.” Trump’s lawyer, Ty Cobb, slammed the raid as a “gross abuse of the judicial process.”

But contra Cobb, search warrants are of course a standard tool for any prosecutor, and while they may be atypical for white-collar clients like Manafort, they are hardly unheard of. And the flipping and document-withholding scenarios seem potentially mutually exclusive—does a prosecutor really want a star witness who he believes was hiding information while cooperating?

There’s a broader pattern of interpretation, too. The hectic pace of news in Trump’s Washington has produced an expectation of quick and decisive progress from the Mueller investigation. Each new development tends to look like another massive move from world-beater Bobby Three Sticks, bestriding Washington and terrorizing the Trump administration. Of course, there’s another way to read them, too: Mueller keeps pushing into new directions because he’s not finding any smoking guns in the places he’s looked so far. Most recent reports suggest that Mueller is focusing less on questions of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and more on obstruction of justice, or questionable business dealings by Trump and associates. But only Mueller and his team actually know.

Notably, they aren’t talking. The public knows a decent amount more about the Mueller investigation now than it did two weeks ago, but most of those revelations have come when Mueller has had to work with other agencies—the FBI, which conducted the Manafort raid, the New York attorney general’s office, the IRS, or someone else. Even with all the new information, the Mueller probe remains highly opaque. That’s unlikely to change anytime soon, but neither is the importance of the probe or the desire to figure out where it’s going. That means the summer of speculation is about to give way to an equally feverish autumn of apparent augury.