The Mueller Thread: What’s Next for the Special Counsel?

The Mueller Thread: What’s Next for the Special Counsel?

By Nick Fouriezos


Because this may not be the last we’ve heard from the investigator into Russian collusion. 

By Nick Fouriezos

Based on OZY’s hit podcast The Thread, which delves into surprising connections in history, The Mueller Thread weaves together the strands linking the sprawling investigations around President Donald Trump.

A Supreme Court justice. A campaign finance and affirmative action reformer. A congressional investigator who sussed out a bribery scandal. 

These are the post-investigation lives of some of the most famous special counsels in U.S. history and a glimpse at what the future may hold for Robert Mueller. The strong-jawed former FBI director concluded his 22-month investigation into in the 2016 election with a report delivered to the attorney general last Friday, and Mueller wraps up his work this week. The conclusions, shared thus far in summary form via Attorney General William Barr, will be etched in history books: no coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian government to interfere in the election, and an unclear finding as to whether the president obstructed justice. Yet the conclusion for Mueller himself — whose grip on the American imagination manifested itself with everything from Saturday Night Live caricatures to Resistance fan art including paintings, prayer candles and Valentine cards — is still to be written. 

Once you’ve been an investigating lawyer, you get the bug.

Carol Elder Bruce

If the next chapter is anything like those of his predecessors, the most likely outcome will see Mueller return to what he was doing before: either at his old law firm, WilmerHale in Washington, D.C., or at the Justice Department, where he spent decades of his career. Entering academia is also an option. That has been the route of special counsels like Ken Starr, who went on to become president and chancellor of Baylor University after investigating President Bill Clinton, and former Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson, who exposed corruption at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1990 and now teaches at the University of Georgia’s law school.

“Our menu is relatively broad, but also limited” after serving as independent counsel, says Carol Elder Bruce, who led investigations into former Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign, Attorney General Edwin Meese and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. “Broad in that we could all go in-house somewhere. But once you’ve been an investigating lawyer, you get the bug. You really enjoy doing that work, so you gravitate toward similar positions.” 


The last time Mueller was coming off a high-profile gig, he had just served a dozen years as FBI director and immediately jumped back into the fray with high-profile investigations into the Volkswagen emissions scandal and the NFL’s handling of the video showing running back Ray Rice assaulting his fiancée. Which is to say that, despite nearing his 75th birthday in August, it’s unlikely the hard-charging former Marine will fade into obscurity. Still, given his age, it’s safe to say he won’t follow Owen Roberts’ road from investigating the Teapot Dome bribery scandal to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1930.

Instead, Mueller may follow a path akin to the special counsels who handled the scandal that so often was compared to his own investigation: Watergate. Leon Jaworski, an Austrian immigrant named after the Spartan king Leonidas, went on to lead a House investigation that implicated several Democrats for taking bribes from South Korean businessman Tongsun Park. 

And while Archibald Cox returned to teaching and writing after famously getting axed by President Richard Nixon in the Saturday Night Massacre, he would later make landmark contributions while serving with government accountability organizations. Cox argued (and won) two Supreme Court cases: one concerning the constitutionality of campaign finance restrictions in Buckley v. Valeo and the other, a pivotal affirmative action test case in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The challenge was to “reshape the machinery of self-government … so that every citizen knows that he or she can participate and that his or her participation counts,” Cox said in a speech after his election in 1980 as chairman of the “people’s lobby” organization Common Cause.

Could Mueller accept a similar challenge to preserve democracy in the wake of his report? After all, his team investigated how Russia monkeyed with America’s democracy, which is sure to face more internal and external threats in the years to come. If the famously tight-lipped investigator moves to become a vocal freedom fighter in his final years, it would be just one more twist in a life that’s been full of them. 

Read more: Poppycock and the coming war over executive privilege.