There’s a temptation to treat every revelation about Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election, every breadcrumb about its progress, as the missing piece bringing us closer to the undoing of the Trump administration. That’s been the norm since May, when the Department of Justice appointed Mueller as special counsel to lead a wide-ranging investigation that, in time, has featured everything from early-morning raids to grand-jury subpoenas to document-preservation requests that have kept Donald Trump, his associates, and the White House on edge.
Mueller himself is a black box — as in, he’s barred by law and his own professionalism to say anything publicly about the probe. But if his actions were judged by the pace of news about what he and his team of prosecutors are up to, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think he’s on the brink of the next Watergate. In one particularly busy week in September, the American public got a jolt from a series of bombshells about Mueller’s tactics, some of them so sensational that even MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow acknowledged on air the word bombshell may be losing meaning. The biggest one came from CNN, which reported that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was the subject of not one but two foreign-surveillance warrants, each empowering federal investigators to wiretap him for set periods both before and right after the election.
Disclosure of secret surveillance of a U.S. citizen is itself a stunning development — the information is classified, and the very existence of a warrant suggests to the public that its target may be a foreign spy. The implications are simply too damaging to linger out in the open. And with no record that Manafort has been charged with a crime, at least none that has been made public yet, it’s no wonder that publishing this information drove him to push back, Trump-style, as if the investigation were a grand liberal witch hunt. “It’s unclear if Paul Manafort was the objective,” Jason Maloni, Manafort’s spokesman and himself a grand-jury witness, told The Wall Street Journal about the reported surveillance. “Perhaps the real objective was Donald Trump.”
Compound this with the August reports that federal agents executed a no-knock warrant of Manafort’s Virginia home one early July morning, and a later New York Times piece indicating that Mueller all but threatened Manafort with an indictment following the raid, and the perception that we’re waiting for the biggest shoe to drop in the Russia inquiry seems inevitable.
But Manafort, in the grand scheme of the sprawling Russia investigation, is only one player in a long list of characters and events in Mueller’s sights. To turn his troubles into an expectation that something big is coming flies in the face of how complex, white-collar federal investigations work. And the reality is that this particular investigation is proceeding alongside an even more complex counterintelligence probe into Russian electoral interference that Mueller is also leading. And that both of those investigations are tethered to a third one into Trump, the president, arising from what Stephen Bannon, his ousted chief strategist, has called the gravest mistake in “modern political history”: the firing of FBI director James Comey. In Bannon’s telling, Mueller wouldn’t have a job as Washington’s second-most-powerful man had it not been for his boss’s folly.
All of these pieces work in tandem at a slow, steady pace, and for analysts or the chattering class to pretend that they know Mueller’s game plan sells him short. “Anybody who purports to explain what’s going on is talking out of an orifice other than their mouths,” Benjamin Wittes, the editor-in-chief of Lawfare and a leading anti-Trump critic, told an audience at the International Student House in Washington in August. Wittes isn’t a lawyer, but those who are and have worked these kinds of cases are of the same mind. “Until such time the special counsel’s office decides to go public, you’re not going to really know other than to the extent certain attorneys or certain witnesses decide to speak freely about what has transpired, which they’re permitted to do. But the government really isn’t,” said Robert Ray, a former federal prosecutor and independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. “It’s kind of a one-sided process.”
The one-sidedness is a feature, not a bug, of the Mueller probe, which in many respects shares elements with other large-scale federal investigations implicating dozens, if not hundreds, of witnesses and subjects, many of whom may have done nothing wrong yet know information that may be of use to the special counsel. As much as the #resistance to Trump may pine for his downfall, it’s not Mueller’s role to throw meat at them. Due process is still something he must watch out for, and in a politicized environment where even his sterling reputation has been called into question, any misstep could fuel accusations of prosecutorial overreach. If we learn, as we have, that Hope Hicks or Sean Spicer or White House counsel Donald McGahn have lawyered up and that Mueller wants to talk to them, that doesn’t mean they’re in trouble — though they may well be down the road if they’re found to have lied to Mueller in service of Trump. All retaining counsel signals is that they may be privy to facts that may help Mueller understand where to take his investigation. “If you were to be contacted by the special counsel’s investigation for an interview or subpoena before the grand jury, you’d be out of your mind not to have counsel represent you,” Ray said, taking his sweet time with words out of your mind. “So the mere fact that someone has counsel with regard to even something as simple as an interview before the special counsel’s office doesn’t really signal anything.”
One individual who is familiar with an aspect of the Mueller inquiry but asked to not be named told New York that, unlike other federal probes that he’s seen in action, where prosecutors build their cases from clear allegations, this one feels different. “This is a backward investigation,” the individual said. “You don’t have a crime. You’re searching. And so you’re not really sure exactly what you’re searching for. So you start asking around and you see what comes up. And you start creating a paradigm and you see what else comes up and figure out at some point whether or not there’s a crime.”
And yet none of us can help but wonder — and speculate — if the investigation will ultimately bring Trump down. The president may well believe in his heart of hearts that the Russia collusion narrative is a “hoax,” but his own White House has generated all kinds of additional controversy and unforced errors that Mueller will certainly look into. The same week the Manafort wiretap bombshell dropped, administration officials confirmed that Mueller is interested in documents and notes related to 13 different incidents over which the White House has come under fire. These are all familiar: They include Trump’s retention of Michael Flynn as national security adviser, notwithstanding warnings from acting attorney general Sally Yates, an Obama administration holdover, that Flynn may be subject to Russian blackmail. Or the time Trump, with no American media present, nonetheless told Russian officials, from the comfort of the Oval Office, that “nut job” James Comey was no longer a liability to his administration. (“I faced great pressure because of Russia,” Trump said, according to a document chronicling the meeting that the Times got its hands on. “That’s taken off.”) And then there is Trump’s team’s fumbled response, from Air Force One, to the revelation that Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Manafort met in Trump Tower with a Russian-linked attorney who promised dirt on Hillary Clinton during the campaign: The initial response offered the pretext of the adoption of Russian children instead of the meeting’s real purpose.
All of these blunders, some more egregious than others, are fair game for Mueller, whose mandate includes not just Russian interference, but also “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation,” plus the prosecution of any federal crimes he deems “necessary and appropriate.” His powers are inherently broad. So to assert that Trump or his underlings may have engaged in obstruction of justice — a term of art that’s up there with collusion in the quasi-legal discourse of the public and the press — is jumping the gun, but the exploration of that question is perfectly within the purview of the special counsel.
Mueller may not show his hand for a long time — and there’s no need to when the tools at his disposal, like the infamous Manafort raid, may be sending helpful signals to those considering cooperating with him. As another former prosecutor put it to the Times: “They are setting a tone. It’s important early on to strike terror in the hearts of people in Washington, or else you will be rolled.”
With or without the shock and awe, there is still a tendency to overreact to Mueller’s moves — especially as they are represented in the media. Marcy Wheeler, a veteran independent reporter who has written critically about the coverage around the more technical aspects of the Russia probe, says that the “vacuum” created by the special counsel’s silence lends itself to rushed, partial scoops — ones which rely on sources who are invested in a particular outcome. “That introduces this asymmetry that people need to keep in mind — both when considering the motives behind a particular story and when you think you get a full view of what’s happening,” Wheeler says. “You don’t, because you’re not seeing what’s going on. You’re only hearing from the people who want to talk.” In the absence of an official word from Mueller, who doesn’t seem like one to rush to judgment, we are all left waiting for the man to finish his job.