The Mueller Thread: The Road Maps to the Special Counsel's Report

The Mueller Thread: The Road Maps to the Special Counsel's Report

Why you should care

Two previous special reports give a pretty good indication of what the upcoming Mueller report might look like. 

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.

For a while, it appeared as if the names Ray Rice and Donald Trump would be linked together for a singular scandalous reason: the release of damning videos substantiating claims of harassment and assault by women against the football superstar and the then-presidential candidate. But even though the unforgettable videos of Rice punching his fiancée in an elevator and Trump bragging about grabbing women by their genitals rocked news cycles a few years ago, history will likely most remember a different, but no less scandalous, connection between the two men: Robert Mueller.

With reports indicating the special counsel could be submitting his report at any moment, there has been a great deal of anticipation about what form that report will take. Back in 2015, when swapping Trump campaign intel with Russians was just a glint in Paul Manafort’s eye, the former FBI head was handing down his last Mueller Report — the one on whether the National Football League mishandled the Rice incident. For those wondering what the next Mueller Report might look like, the Rice Report provides one potential road map. The second is the “Watergate Road Map” about President Richard Nixon that special prosecutor Leon Jaworski submitted to Congress. Combined, the two give a pretty good hint as to what Mueller might have in store.

The simplicity of the document was by design.

The legendary Jaworski road map was not unsealed and made public until last October. The summary evidence assembled by Jaworksi and his team of prosecutors investigating the Watergate break-in and cover-up was handed over to the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 to assist with preparing articles of impeachment against Nixon. The road map is a straightforward 55-page outline of facts, names, dates, places and quotations. Unlike the Starr Report, penned by independent counsel Kenneth Starr investigating President Bill Clinton, there are no accusations or conclusions. It does not even allege that Nixon committed any crimes. And, although authored by Jaworski and his team, it was signed by the grand jury that had been handing down indictments against the Watergate conspirators for months. Still, the massive amount of evidence assembled by investigators prompts its own inescapable conclusions about whether the president took part in a criminal conspiracy.

The simplicity of the document was by design. Jaworski was in an unprecedented position and was uncomfortable with indicting a sitting president of the United States. It would be better, as Jaworski later put it in his memoir, if his report merely laid out the “facts of the cover-up story” and “let the committee members reach their own conclusions.”

When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reached out to Mueller on Sept. 10, 2014, it was in part with the hope that an independent investigator could help keep Congress from reaching its own conclusions as the league tried to dampen down the ever-widening scandal. Goodell initially imposed a two-game suspension on Rice. But once the video of the popular running back punching his fiancée surfaced, and the Associated Press reported that NFL officials had received a copy of the tape five months earlier, the pressure from the public and members of Congress was on Goodell to explain — to paraphrase the Watergate mantra — what the league knew and when it knew it.

Mueller, who had an impeccable reputation and had steered the FBI through 12 years, including the 9/11 attacks, set to work. For the next four months, he and his team painstakingly reviewed millions of documents, tracked thousands of phone calls in and out of the NFL and interviewed more than 180 people. The resulting 96-page report cleared the NFL of any intentional wrongdoing but was heavily criticized for the narrowness of its focus — primarily on whether the league had received a copy of the incriminating video, rather than on larger questions about to what extent the league ignored the abusive actions of Rice and other players.

What might the Jaworski road map and the previous Mueller Report signal when it comes to the next Mueller Report? For starters, as is already on display in the countless filings and indictments handed down in the Trump-Russia affair, Mueller is going to be thorough, methodical and limit himself to the specific questions at issue, just as in the Rice investigation. Of course, Mueller’s remit is far broader when it comes to the Russia probe, so even a limited approach could produce voluminous results.

Whatever the breadth of his report, Mueller, like Jaworski, will almost certainly play down his own role and try to avoid appearing as an overzealous prosecutor or involving himself in partisan politics. Mueller’s report, or road map, thus will likely be briefer, and contain fewer accusations and conclusions than the Starr Report. Part of this is dictated by the special counsel rules that emerged in the wake of the Starr investigation. Mueller is required to return his findings to Attorney General William Barr, which makes it less likely that Mueller will make an effort to advise Congress about how to put the information to use when it comes to impeachment.

It could well be the case that everyone — from those expecting a lengthy and damning report to those anticipating a cursory and largely exculpatory summary — leaves a bit disappointed with Robert Mueller. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Read more: From the ‘Canuck Letter’ to Hillary’s Emails.

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