The whispers started in 2018, though where they originated remains unclear: Robert S. Mueller III, the taciturn Marine veteran leading an investigation of the president of the United States, might not be as sharp as he once was.
At least some members of Mueller’s team rejected the insinuation out of hand. Yes, Mueller was 74 years old. But he worked nine to 10 hours a day, attended every meeting with the team leaders he appointed and appeared focused and engaged in those interactions, two people familiar with the special counsel’s investigation said.
When congressional staffers, prompted by repeated media inquiries, asked Mueller’s team about his cognitive acuity, they were told — three separate times — that he was okay.
“They were unequivocal,” according to one congressional official familiar with the talks.
After Mueller’s halting, sometimes confused testimony before two congressional committees Wednesday, some lawmakers are privately wondering whether there was some truth to the rumors — and whether they were right to force him to testify against his wishes.
But some involved in Mueller’s work insist he was an attentive leader throughout the sprawling, 22-month investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and President Trump’s attempts to impede the special counsel’s work. They say he is being held to an unfair standard because his performance disappointed those who hoped to use his testimony for political gain.
“This was such a sprawling investigation,” said one person familiar with the case. “For one person to know every single detail and be completely up to speed on every granular piece of information, I think is just unreasonable.”
That person and others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk publicly about the special counsel’s work or about internal negotiations between Congress and Mueller’s team. A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment.
That rumors were allowed to chase Mueller is something of his own doing. The former FBI director rarely issued statements to the media and — until the day in late May when he announced he was closing the special counsel’s office — never spoke in public. At least in part to prevent leaks, he segmented his investigators into groups, each responsible for a piece of the investigation, each sharing information with others only as needed, according to people familiar with the matter.
In the absence of tangible information, many politicians ascribed to the special counsel whatever they wanted.
Democrats lionized Mueller, believing his investigation to be their best hope at exposing wrongdoing by Trump. The president and his Republican allies, meanwhile, accused Mueller of running a politically motivated crusade to overturn the result of the 2016 election. After his testimony, neither side seemed to change its position.
“Robert Mueller is a man of honor and integrity. He has led a life defined by service to his country,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, before which Mueller provided more than three hours of testimony. “Some have argued that, because Director Mueller was reluctant to testify and seemed older than they remembered him, his work is somehow diminished. It is not.”
Few have any intimate knowledge of how the special counsel’s office operated, and even now, the public has limited insight. Mueller said during his testimony that he attended only a few witness interviews but declined to talk about any of his team’s internal discussions.
One person familiar with the investigation said Mueller was “the first prosecutor in every day,” arriving well before 8 a.m., and was “present, and he was very clearly running the office.”
Mueller was interested in the details of his team’s work, but he was not a micromanager, a different person familiar with his investigation said. He sought to ensure that briefers gave him “the bottom line up front,” the person said, and would sometimes interrupt long-winded presentations with a question intended to make the presenter focus.
“He does not want fluff,” the person said. “He’s not interested in information that isn’t directly related to the decision that needs to be made.”
Two people familiar with his investigation said that, even as Mueller sought to keep information from flowing out of his office, he was keenly interested in what was publicly reported about his team. He would ask team members about various media reports or other developments, the people said. The team monitored information sources including White House news briefings, CNN and Fox News.
After Mueller’s investigation ended — and Democrats pressed him to testify — his staff communicated to Capitol Hill in no uncertain terms: Mueller did not want to do it. They emphasized before and after he was served with a congressional subpoena, as Mueller had during his May 29 news conference at the Justice Department, that he would not testify beyond the contents of his 448-page report, people familiar with the matter said.
“That was made very, very clear,” said one person familiar with the investigation. “And then, once Mueller was subpoenaed, the committees were told you’re not going to get any more from him. Period.”
Several people familiar with the matter said Mueller’s team disputed the suggestion that he might be experiencing cognitive issues. Congressional investigators organizing the hearing chalked up his reluctance to his long-standing disdain for testifying on Capitol Hill.
“They were very clear from the first conversation that he wanted to be here for zero hours and that, if he testifies, he would not say one word beyond the ‘four corners’ of the report,” said the official familiar with the talks. “It had nothing to do with his age or health — it had everything to do with his sheer belief that if he does anything outside of what a traditional prosecutor would do, it would undermine his report.”
Still, some aides and lawmakers worried that something was amiss. Immediately after Mueller’s news conference in May, House Democratic aides suggested they may not need to bring Mueller to Capitol Hill at all — an idea that crumbled as soon as lawmakers returned to Washington from a recess and began once again demanding that he appear in public.
As lawmakers drew closer to the August recess and realized it was now or never to subpoena Mueller, some committee members struggled with whether it was a good idea to bring him in. They talked among themselves about the rumors and whether they could glean any insight from his news conference.
There were possible warning signs, some Democrats say privately. For a time, Mueller’s team pushed for the hearings to take place behind closed doors, and they advocated aggressively to limit each of the hearings to two hours. Members also were perplexed that panel staffers wanted them to shape questions so they could be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” That, though, was viewed as a time-preserving mechanism, and to accommodate Mueller’s wishes to not be seen as a political prop, one congressional official said.
At the last minute, Mueller also sought to have Aaron Zebley, his top deputy in the investigation, sworn in to testify alongside him. The House Judiciary Committee rejected that request, and while Zebley was sworn in and sat beside Mueller during the House Intelligence Committee hearing, the deputy said nothing.
Because Mueller’s team denied there was a problem, the committees pushed ahead.
True to his word, the former special counsel resisted saying anything that might be used as a political weapon, refusing to even read sections of his report aloud. But he also notably stumbled on several occasions, fueling criticism — and speculation — about his sharpness.
Mueller misstated how he was appointed as acting U.S. attorney in Massachusetts in the 1980s. He struggled to come up with the word “conspiracy,” even though the core of his investigation was to determine whether there was a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election.
In the morning’s first hearing, before the Judiciary Committee, Mueller mangled one of his team’s most critical and controversial findings, suggesting that his team would have charged Trump with obstructing justice if not for Justice Department policy that prevents the indictment of a sitting president. In fact, according to his report, Mueller’s team made no determination, even privately, of whether Trump could be charged, because of the Justice Department policy and because of concerns about fairness.
Mueller corrected his testimony at the outset of his afternoon hearing before the House Intelligence Committee.
Some Democrats recognized after the first hearing that Mueller was not as sharp as they would have liked. During a break, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), who sits on both committees, warned lawmakers on the second panel to slow down, shorten their questions and speak louder so Mueller could follow better, according to a person in the room.
The slip-ups fueled conservative attacks that Mueller was not in command of his own case. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) tweeted as the hearings were ongoing, “The more this hearing goes on, the more it becomes painfully clear that not only did Bob Mueller not write his own report — he was barely involved or in control of it at all. You know who was? His team of Democrats.” Throughout Mueller’s investigation, Trump repeatedly attacked his team as biased and noted that many had donated to Democratic political candidates.
Two people familiar with the investigation, though, disputed that a subordinate was in control. Most of Mueller’s prosecutors were assigned to specific cases or aspects of the investigation, with Mueller, Zebley and James Quarles effectively serving as the top leaders, the people said.
Andrew Weissmann worked on the prosecution of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Andrew Goldstein, along with Quarles, worked on the investigation of whether Trump sought to obstruct justice. Brandon Van Grack and Zainab Ahmad worked on the case against former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Democratic lawmakers are divided about whether they made the right decision in forcing Mueller to appear. Some — and most committee staff members — say they had no choice. While saddened by the attacks on Mueller post-hearing, they say his testimony will pay off in the long run for their investigations, as the public event allowed Mueller to publicly confirm unflattering facts about Trump that they can further explore.
“We didn’t invite Robert De Niro to testify. We invited Robert Mueller, and he is a straight shooter who stuck to the report,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), referring to the actor who has played Mueller in comedy sketches on “Saturday Night Live.”
Other Democratic lawmakers, however, aren’t so sure. One who questioned Mueller, speaking on the condition of anonymity to express a candid view, expressed regret, worrying that he and his colleagues had hauled Mueller in for selfish reasons and tarnished his name by exposing his deficiencies.
“It was a painful reminder that age catches up to all of us,” another House Democrat said. “Here you have this Vietnam hero and this post-September 11 FBI director. You could tell he was having a hard time hearing and it was like, ‘Ugh! This is not how I want him to be remembered.’ ”
Those close to Mueller say they believe he did what he said he would do.
“Bob Mueller delivered on his promise,” said one person familiar with the investigation, “and he stayed above the fray.”