Somewhere in the mesosphere of Washington, D.C., where the pale marble declines into the concrete prairie, you will find the newish and largish building where special counsel Robert Mueller is silently drilling down into Donald Trump's White House. Try to imagine the shhh of a combination lock turning on a secure filing cabinet in that anonymous building, the ghostly whisper of papers shuffling between manila folders, the steel roll-down gate ascending so Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort or Michael Cohen can emerge from the mouth of the underground parking garage, their souls now unburdened of incriminating secrets, having disclosed them in the windowless confessional of the special counsel's conference room where, The Washington Post reports, Mueller, a “sphinx-like presence,” does not ask any questions himself, instead sitting in the back and letting his staff work the cooperating witnesses over, like a card player who lets his confederates do the betting.
The fuse on Mueller's investigation has been quietly burning away for more than a year. Soon it will, as the dueling partisans tell it, either explode into another Civil War or fizzle away into nothing at all. In the meantime, we make do with whatever pieces of news slip out. From Mueller, we've seen sober legal filings implicating various members of Trump's team. From Trump, we've been subjected to a series of increasingly anguished tweets. He has claimed that Mueller's investigation is “illegal” and a “Witch Hunt.” Most recently, he forced the resignation of Jeff Sessions and reassigned oversight of the special counsel to a loyalist, Matthew Whitaker, setting up what is likely to be the final stretch of the whole affair.
Rather than punch back, Mueller has maintained his silence. Those who know him are not surprised. Robert Swan Mueller III, now 74 years old, has long been revered by elders of both political parties. He is a throwback to an earlier regime, when, the story goes, Ivy League patricians entered government for the sake of service, not self-enrichment.
“He's the perfect choice,” said Ken Starr, whose memoir, Contempt, looks back on his time investigating Bill Clinton. “I know him from observation to be a person of complete integrity.”
“He is smart, dedicated, patriotic, and self-effacing,” said General James Clapper, the former intelligence chief. “There is no straighter arrow.”
Mueller's differences with Trump are expressed in part by their respective styles: barrel cuffs (Mueller) versus French cuffs (Trump), Brooks versus Brioni, lace-ups versus loafers, button-down collars versus spread collars, muted foulard belt-length ties versus shiny red scotch-taped descenders. One man is aiming for quiet adherence to established norms. The other is trying to stun his prey.
John Miller, who reported to Mueller as an assistant director at the FBI and is now a deputy commissioner of the NYPD, described Mueller's wardrobe as being constructed “so that if you got out of bed at 5:18, knowing that you had to be at work at 6:18 in the morning, and you couldn't turn on the light because you couldn't wake anybody else up, it would never make any difference.” It is a kind of sartorial “no comment,” constructed of blue and gray suits, white shirts, quiet ties.
One day, Miller showed up for work at Robert Mueller's FBI wearing a pink shirt, French cuffs, and a gold watch. Mueller called him out in the morning meeting.
“John, John, John,” he said. “What are you supposed to be?”
“Sir, you told me that we dress like lawyers here.”
“Yes. But not like drug lawyers.”
One can only imagine Mueller's thinking when he introduced into evidence receipts for more than $1 million in clothing purchased by Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign manager. Among his acquisitions were $1,500 shirts, $1,000 ties, and jackets made from the skins of ostriches and pythons. Some of Manafort's finery was procured via funds transmitted overseas from a Cypriot shell corporation to the House of Bijan in Beverly Hills. We don't know what Mueller thought about all that because he speaks to us only in court, through the mouths of his deputies and their legal filings. There are no press conferences, no raging tweets, no reply to the president's whining. The quiet is also part of the uniform.
Mueller's silence evokes something that we would all like to believe about the American justice system. He embodies the Boy Scout ideal of the FBI: the absolute fairness of the lawful good, of power without partisanship. Somehow, despite abuses of the law in the agency's recent past, this ideal has persisted. It survived the gross excesses of J. Edgar Hoover and the warping of the Constitution after 9/11, with the FBI rounding up Muslims and working hand in glove with the NSA to conduct domestic surveillance. Mueller went along with some of it, until he didn't. Unlike their CIA counterparts, FBI agents refrained from torturing captives held at Guantánamo. In 2004, Mueller threatened to resign rather than continue the most intrusive forms of domestic surveillance. He did not close the gap between what the FBI is and what we want it to be, but the record shows that he tried.
As our common narrative bifurcates like a serpent's tongue, we cling to the hope that someone is keeping track, that objective truth still resides somewhere, in carbon-copy triplicate, locked in a filing cabinet upstairs. We may decide, in the end, that we do not want to know Robert Mueller; we may even take comfort in the fact that there may not be much of Robert Mueller to know. We need him to remain vague and silent so he can continue to serve as a vessel for our ridiculous hopes—that there is someone in government worth believing in, that the times we are experiencing now will somehow be brought to a reasonable end, and that the story of what happened will be something that we can all agree on.
“Silence is a weapon,” said Ali Soufan, who worked with Mueller on counterterrorism at the FBI after 9/11. “The moment he opens his mouth and says anything about this investigation, it's going to be interpreted politically, as part of the partisan circus. And so silence, by itself, is a statement. He understands the importance of the job that is on his shoulders.”
It should come as no surprise that Mueller wears the clothes of a man with nothing to prove. His father, after all, was a DuPont executive. One of his mother's grandfathers was the self-made president and later chairman of the Lackawanna Railroad. Mueller, who still benefits from multiple family trusts, did what he could to give back. He volunteered to go to Vietnam and returned to the United States a decorated combat veteran.
“Those of us who came back believed we had a responsibility to live a purposeful life, to live a life that does honor to the legacy of those who gave theirs,” said John Kerry, who was Mueller's classmate at St. Paul's, an elite boarding school, and who also fought in Vietnam. The two boys bonded through sports, playing soccer, hockey, and lacrosse together at St. Paul's. “People looked up to Bob,” Kerry told me. “He doesn't brag or boast or showboat. He isn't moved by headlines. He's a Marine. He lives by a code.”
Many of those who praised Mueller did not see themselves as part of the resistance. They sounded principled and impartial when they told me that they did not care whether Mueller sent Trump to the clink or completely exonerated him. Regardless of the outcome, they would have confidence in the resulting report, whether or not it was made public, so long as it was Mueller's signature at the bottom. Their belief in Mueller is not a reflection of any belief in the president's guilt so much as a belief in the Constitution, due process, and the enduring power of institutions. It represents the ideal of a government of laws, not men, an ideal so embattled now that it seems to hang on the good name of one man alone.
In Vietnam, Mueller survived a long hilltop firefight in an area known as Mutter's Ridge, a battle that claimed the lives of 13 Marines. He has never told the story of what happened there; others have had to reconstruct it from the words of his comrades and from citations written up by the Marine Corps when he won the Bronze Star. “The minute the shit hit the fan, he was there,” one of the Marines under his command told Garrett M. Graff, the author of The Threat Matrix: The FBI at War in the Age of Global Terror.
Four months later, Mueller was shot in the thigh during an ambush and received the Purple Heart. After his tour, he considered making a career in the Marines and served as an aide to a general. He found that he did not like the atmosphere away from the front lines, and his wife, Ann, was ambivalent about his making his career in the military. They moved to Charlottesville, and Mueller enrolled in law school at the University of Virginia. He passed the bar and became a rising star within the Department of Justice. His work on the investigation of Pan Am Flight 103 led to the conviction of a Libyan intelligence officer. He assisted with the prosecution of Manuel Noriega and approved a deal in which Sammy “the Bull” Gravano would betray his superior, John Gotti, in exchange for a reduced sentence.
In 1995, Mueller made an unusual career move and became a rank-and-file federal prosecutor in the District of Columbia, working homicides. “That decision speaks volumes about his level of commitment,” said Mary McCord, the former head of the Justice Department's national-security division. “If you manage for too long, you get a bit ivory tower. He can roll up his sleeves and do the ground-level work.”
“People would talk about him coming into work at five in the morning. Everyone who works with him has to adjust their schedule.”
In 2001, George W. Bush appointed him to be the sixth director of the FBI. He took office one week before the September 11 attacks and led the bureau through the tumultuous aftermath. The White House was demanding answers about how the attackers slipped through and was frantic about preventing a second wave, one that never wound up materializing. In multiple hearings, Mueller vigorously defended the bureau from congressmen who wanted to break it up and re-distribute its responsibilities. Internally, he was a hard-charging reformer. He required agents to rotate between bureaus, shook up underperforming managers with an up-or-out policy, and opened 18 new overseas offices. “I credit him for saving the FBI as we know it today,” said Sheriff William D. Gore, who led the bureau's San Diego office during the early aughts.
As a leader, Mueller tolerated the expression of dissenting views and would often reach down into the lower ranks to triangulate what he was hearing. But he had no patience for ignorance, lassitude, or evasion. Lauren C. Anderson, who was then the FBI's Legal Attaché to the U.S. embassy in Paris, told me about a 2003 meeting she had with Mueller and several cabinet members of Tunisia in Tunis, the country's capital. When the Tunisians seemed less than forthcoming about a group of suspected terrorists, Mueller abruptly stood up. “We're done here,” he said. The U.S. ambassador followed. The Tunisians scrambled to hand out the gifts they'd brought to the meeting. “The message was clear,” Anderson told me. “You need to cooperate in full before we'll give you any of our time.”
Among his colleagues, Mueller was known for his diligence, his aloofness from politics, and, perhaps above all, his reserve. John Rizzo, the former CIA general counsel, recalls sitting with Mueller in the agency's cafeteria after a briefing. At lunch, rather than bantering about careers and family, Mueller held himself apart from the group. “He was polite and affable,” Rizzo said. “But he did none of that.” Mueller has spoken about the Marine Corps as a second family, and it is possible that he internalized some of its rules against “fraternization,” the development of personal friendships within a chain of command. “He was not a social guy,” said Philip Mudd, who served under Mueller as deputy director of the bureau's national-security branch. “I wouldn't call him shy—I would call him private. Really private. When we would go to Iraq and Afghanistan, we wouldn't sit around with him at night having beers and cigars and saying ‘Where did you grow up?’ and so on.” Mueller was approachable, polite, and likable, Mudd said, but “he wasn't friends with any of us.”
In one job interview, Mueller is said to have had the candidate stand at attention until he dismissed him. He imposed the same sort of discipline on himself. “People would talk about him coming into work at five in the morning,” said McCord. “Everyone who works with him has to adjust their schedule.” James Comey told Graff something similar: “He drives at such speed that he can burn up people around him.”
Some of Mueller's former colleagues preferred his reticence to Comey's showiness. Even before the controversial press conferences about the Clinton investigation during the run-up to the 2016 election, Comey eagerly sought out the spotlight, weighing in on matters as varied as encryption, the root causes of terrorism, how to be a good listener. Mueller, by contrast, mostly closed himself off from public view. Two commencement speeches, spaced out over several years, recycle the same homiletic calls to adhere to the virtues of patience, service, and humility. “We must all find ways to contribute to something bigger than ourselves,” he told the graduating class of 2013 at William & Mary. “Most importantly, we must never, ever sacrifice our integrity.” Mueller has never said much about his military service beyond remarking “pretty accurate” when watching a war movie while traveling on a plane with his staff, words that come thirdhand, through Graff's reporting. “He won't write a memoir,” Rizzo told me.
As extensively as Mueller has participated in the past 50 years of American history, it may all be remembered as preparation for the terrifying responsibilities of his current job. In May 2017, after Trump fired James Comey, Rod Rosenstein, Trump's deputy attorney general, appointed Mueller as special counsel. It would be Mueller's job to pick up Comey's most important ongoing investigation and provide Rosenstein with the definitive, official answer to the question that has been dogging the country and casting a shadow over the legitimacy of its elected leadership: What exactly was going on between Donald Trump and Russia in the months before the 2016 election? In his letter appointing Mueller, Rosenstein granted him a broad hunting license. In addition to the power to indict, subpoena, and haul witnesses before a grand jury, Mueller could probe beyond Russia into “related matters…that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” He could prosecute anyone who sought to thwart him through “perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses.”
Rosenstein's letter authorizes Mueller to keep digging at Trump until he either finds the root ball at the center of the president's tangled corruptions or satisfies himself that no such thing exists. It is hard to look at the document and not see Rosenstein trying to compensate for what happened eight days earlier, when he wrote a memo to support Trump's decision to fire Comey. Rosenstein was reportedly embarrassed and angered by the perception that he had been used by the White House to get rid of Comey. At one point he is said to have talked about using the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office. (Rosenstein has denied this.) His choice of Mueller to be special counsel is an understandably frightening one for Trump, or for anyone. “I wouldn't want him after me, let's put it that way,” Sheriff Gore said.
This is how authority is supposed to behave: You do the right thing, for the right reason, in the right way, and you keep your mouth shut about it. It is clear that Mueller couldn't care less—if he is even aware—about his presence in this Men of the Year issue, or about any other form of publicity, for that matter. “One of the ways he's maintained respect is by doing his job and letting his work speak for itself,” Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told me. “When you're taking on the task of investigating the possibility that the president of the United States colluded with a foreign country, the very nature of this investigation is historic. It makes Watergate look small.”
“The walls seem to be closing in on some of the key figures."
Rizzo said he doubts Mueller will even hold a press conference when his investigation is complete. But when his final report is done—and many sources have this on the immediate horizon, now that the midterm elections are past—the special counsel's silence will likely be broken. The question then will be whether the legendary impartiality with which Mueller is believed to have conducted his investigation will float atop the deadly partisan whirlpool of the contemporary news cycle or plummet to the bottom. At that moment, Mueller will no longer be able to please everyone, and the more aggressive partisans may look for ways to tear him down. One can at least take comfort in the idea that Mueller is not worrying too much about these political matters, which are beyond his control and, at least in his view, temporary. “He said to me once, whatever we put out, make sure it's the truth,” Miller said. “No spin, no coloring, no shading. Even if we were going to get beat up, we were a good agency. We did good work. And that bad story was one day in the newspapers.”
The report, no matter what it says, will be thorough. Mueller's team has interviewed dozens of members of Trump's cabinet and senior staff, along with the author of the notorious pee-tape dossier. He has spent hours with Trump's White House counsel, Don McGahn, whose cooperation was reportedly “extensive,” and turned around the loyalties of Trump's longtime personal lawyer, Michael Cohen. He has more than one million pages of documents provided by the Trump campaign. He has requested records from Cambridge Analytica and Facebook and subpoenaed one of Trump's largest creditors, Deutsche Bank. “My gut feeling is that where the rubber will meet the road is the financial part of this,” Gore told me. “All these allegations about individuals in Russia and investments going back and forth—when prosecutors put that all together, it's likely to be the final nail in the coffin.”
“The walls seem to be closing in on some of the key figures,” said Senator Warner. “I hope he concludes as soon as he can.”
What should be apparent to anyone following the Russia investigation is that there is, in addition to everything known about Trump already, some X factor, something that is known to members of the intelligence community but has yet to be revealed to the public. John Brennan, the former CIA director, has referred to X repeatedly, tweeting about what might happen when “the full extent” of Trump's wrongdoing “becomes known” and hinting at times that in 2016 he possessed information about contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians, which he passed on to the FBI. As far as those on the outside can tell, X originated in intelligence gathered by Britain and perhaps some other foreign countries. It has passed from Brennan to Comey to Mueller. Senator Warner, who told me he knows “Mueller a bit but not well,” reportedly joked at a dinner in June that “if you think you've seen wild stuff so far, buckle up.” At the end of Mueller's investigation, the fight will commence in Congress over the size and significance of X and whether to terminate this presidency early or allow it to hobble its way to the finish line. All Mueller can do is unearth the X and bring it to light. He can arm the country with facts for these coming battles. But he cannot fight them for us.
Mattathias Schwartz's last article for GQ, “The Un-Quiet American,” appeared in the December 2017/January 2018 Issue.
This story originally appeared in the December 2018/January 2019 issue with the title "The Master of Silence."