Until his brief Wednesday morning announcement, Robert Mueller had become the J.D. Salinger of federal law enforcement. Since releasing his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election last month—a report that, it should be noted, currently occupies three slots on The New York Times bestseller list, despite being available for free—he has given no interviews, dodged cameras, and attempted to avoid making any public comment about any of the 448 pages the country has spent the last several weeks debating.
This is, of course, all in character. Mueller has a carefully cultivated public image—an incorruptible public servant, a boy scout, the law man’s law man—and works diligently to avoid contaminating it with any of the grubbiness of politics. “He envisions himself correctly as a man of great rectitude and apolitical and he doesn’t want to participate in anything that he might regard as a political spectacle,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, who has been trying to get the special counsel to testify before Congress, told MSNBC last week.
Mueller, it seems safe to assume, had hoped that his report would speak for itself; that it would transcend the partisan narratives that had engulfed the investigation from its inception. That hasn’t happened—not by a long shot. Attorney General William Barr and President Donald Trump have relentlessly spun Mueller’s decision to not prosecute the president as a “complete and total exoneration,” even though there is ample evidence of both collusion and obstruction in his report. Now, The Guardian’s Edward Helmore is reporting that Michael Wolff’s new book, Siege: Trump Under Fire—the sequel to his controversial bombshell Fire and Fury—contains evidence that the special counsel’s office “drew up a three-count obstruction of justice indictment against Donald Trump before deciding to shelve it.”
In Siege, Wolff writes that his reporting on the Mueller investigation is “based on internal documents given to [him] by sources close to the Office of the Special Counsel.” A spokesperson for the special counsel, however, denied this, saying “The documents that you’ve described do not exist.” Helmore, however, wrote that he had seen a corroborating document, and reported it includes charges relating to obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and retaliation. According to Wolff, the Mueller team also rejected the contention that a sitting president cannot be indicted. That idea has been the position inside the Justice Department since its Office of Legal Counsel drafted a memo during the embattled presidency of Richard Nixon, but it has never been tested in court.
These two statements—Wolff’s claim that Mueller drafted an indictment, and the OSC’s insistence it did not—seem, at first flush, to be contradictory. But it’s possible both are technically true—technically. Wolff, it should be legally required to note, has a long, long history of reporting gossip as fact. Fire and Fury sold five million copies, but contained several howlers—and plenty of unverifiable claims. Some of the dialogue in that book was worthy of Lee Child; Wolff also has a tendency to fictionalize events he heard about but didn’t see. He is lurid, pulpy, and prone to pushing facts as far as they can go. Sometimes it seems he’s just pulling stuff out of his ass—like when he implied while promoting Fire and Fury that Trump and then-UN Secretary Nikki Haley were having an affair.
According to Helmore’s summary of Wolff, “Mueller’s office drew up a three-count outline of the president’s alleged abuses, under the title ‘United States of America against Donald J Trump, Defendant’” and that the document “sat on the special counsel’s desk” for almost a year. The word “outline” is key. That could be different than a complete, drafted indictment. So, the statement from the Special Counsel’s office could be specific enough to be accurate—but it might not really refute the reporting.
Characteristic of Wolff’s style, Siege waxes poetic on the special counsel’s inner conflict. “Robert Mueller, the stoic marine, had revealed himself over the course of the nearly two-year investigation to his colleagues and staff to be quite a Hamlet figure. Or, less dramatically, a cautious and indecisive bureaucrat.”
“In a way,” Wolff wrote, “Robert Mueller had come to accept the dialectical premise of Donald Trump—that Trump is Trump. Bob Mueller threw up his hands. Surprisingly, he found himself in agreement with the greater White House: Donald Trump was the president, and, for better or for worse, what you saw was what you got—and what the country voted for.”
As with much Wolff has written, this is at once absurd and plausible. He writes from inside Mueller’s head, but there is no reason to believe the author is divining the special counsel’s true intentions—it is, at best second-hand reporting. And yet, it is in keeping with the current narrative about the special counsel: That he carefully weighed charging the president with a crime. It is especially important, moreover, that, according to The Guardian, Mueller and his team believed that they could indict the president—that they believed, in other words, that no one, not even Trump, is above the law.
But Siege recounts that Mueller’s chief concern might have been making sure he didn’t get fired. The special counsel evidently felt he couldn’t insist on questioning the president under oath if he wanted the investigation to continue. Mueller’s caution ultimately led him to demur at indicting the president himself and, instead, the report kicked the can to Congress.
What’s missing from all of this, however, is the special counsel’s voice. Not Wolff’s ventriloquist routine—in which he puts thoughts into the heads of people with whom he has (probably) never spoken—but Mueller’s actual voice.
As Congress fails to do its constitutionally mandated duty and investigate the president’s readily apparent crimes, Trump, Barr, and a rogue’s gallery of administration apologists have been given a world of room to peddle their own fiction. But Mueller has failed to adequately contextualize his report, as well. We think we know why, for instance, Mueller “determined not to make a prosecutorial judgment” on the president, despite ample evidence of obstruction of justice, but we don’t actually know. For that certainty, we should be relying on Congress and Mueller; not Michael Wolff.