The first thing you notice during a marathon spree of watching Robert Mueller testify before Congress is his voice. This is not because his voice is striking—although it is, in a way, a crisp and direct tenor—but because you’re hearing it at all.
For two years, the special counsel running the Russia probe, the man at the center of the most talked-about and speculated-upon American investigation in decades, has said not a word in a public forum. His team’s official pronouncements came via indictments and courtroom arguments, as well as a couple of on-the-record statements pushing back against media reports or other critics. Neither Mueller nor any of his prosecutors gave an interview, and Mueller himself was spied only occasionally, at the airport or walking down a Washington, D.C. street, or dining with his wife at his go-to casual restaurant, never speaking to the public.
That’s likely going to change soon: Mueller has been called before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, who want to grill him on the findings from his lengthy investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and potential obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump. Democrats and the special counsel’s representatives have been haggling for weeks to set a date to commence the blockbuster hearings, and the expectation is that he will appear by next month.
So what can we expect? It’s impossible to know how Mueller will respond to questions Democratic and GOP lawmakers are teeing up for him. But when it comes to the character at the center of the drama, there’s actually some evidence for how it’s going to go. Over his most recent 12 years in public life, as the FBI director under two presidential administrations, Mueller testified more than 50 times before Congress. He was hauled before a joint House-Senate panel to talk about intelligence gathering and counterterrorism surrounding the events of Sept. 11, 2001; he presented plans after the terrorist attacks for a sweeping FBI reorganization; and a dozen years later, during his 2013 retirement hearings, discussed everything from the Boston Marathon bombings to a suite of controversial government surveillance programs. They’re all archived on C-SPAN—more than 140 hours of video footage starring the man Americans have been waiting to hear from.
I watched more than 20 hours of that footage, a representative sample of big and small hearings on a range of issues spanning the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, before both friendly and hostile lawmakers.
When you watch the clips, the images feel immediately familiar: Cable news has been showing the same Mueller footage on a loop since his appointment in May 2017. But it’s always with the sound turned off. That’s a mistake. Listening to Mueller speak helps pierce some of the mythology that’s seemed to only grow in the absence of any news conferences or public speaking appearances while he’s been the special counsel. What do they show us? And what does Congress need to know as it goes toe-to-toe with one of the most respected, bulldog law-enforcement officials in the nation?
Mueller has worked complex issues before. A lot.
The Russia investigation feels totally unique, and in some ways it is. But there’s a reason then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein picked Mueller for the job in the first place: He’s a specialist in high-level, complex investigations.
Mueller took over as FBI director one week before 9/11, and his first months on the job were dominated by an examination of the missed warning signs that led to the terrorist attacks. He spearheaded the bureau’s reorganization from a straight-up law enforcement agency to a national security organization. And he implemented controversial intelligence-gathering and surveillance policies in the face of serious civil liberties concerns.
He’s also dealt with complicated matters involving Russia. Mueller spoke during his Senate confirmation hearing in 2001 about helping the FBI redeem its reputation after several “serious and highly publicized problems” that included agent Robert Hanssen being outed as a Soviet and Russian mole. A decade later in June 2011, Mueller testified about the persistent threat of Russian espionage, noting the arrest the previous summer of 10 Russian spies who’d been living for years as sleeper agents in the U.S.
That fall, when asked which nation states are the “biggest actors” in espionage against the U.S, Mueller replied, “It’d be hard to pick out some. I think it’s been raised in other hearings, but you have countries such as Russia and China, others, Iran perhaps.”
He’s also cautious when it comes to investigations, relying on his past experience as a federal prosecutor in Boston, Washington and San Francisco and leading the Justice Department’s criminal division. Answering a question in 2001 from then-Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) about how he goes about not infringing on anyone’s First Amendment rights when conducting politically sensitive probes, Mueller said he thinks of investigations very conservatively—not as gotcha campaigns, but as “a series of steps” to determine “whether or not you’ve got sufficient reason to go forward to the next step.”
Mueller has thought about targeting presidents before.
With the Bill Clinton impeachment saga not very far back in the rearview mirror, senators in 2001 pressed Mueller in his nomination hearing to talk about how he’d handle a high-level criminal probe in which the chief executive himself was the target. “Would you, as FBI director, exercise the authority to withhold information from the president on national security matters, because the president was the subject of a criminal investigation?” asked then-Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican at the time.
“There may be an occasion where it’s possible, yes,” Mueller replied.
And then there’s this remarkable exchange from the same hearing with then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who asked Mueller whether he’d be willing to use the independence that comes with a 10-year term leading the FBI to go around the Justice Department brass “if something serious occurs and there has been a threat to the orderly operation of justice.”
“I do not exclude the possibility that the circumstances would be such that I would feel it necessary to circumvent the ordinary course of proceedings by, which would be to go to the attorney general first before I made perhaps a disclosure to Congress,” Mueller answered. “But I am not precluding the possibility that given the necessary independence of the bureau in investigation, that there might not come a time where one seeks an alternative where one believes that political pressure is being brought to bear on the investigative process.
“That may be somewhere else in the executive, beyond the attorney general,” Mueller added. “It may be Congress, but I would look and explore every option if I believed that the FBI was being pressured for political reasons. And if that were the situation as described here, I would explore other alternatives or a variety of alternatives in order to make certain that justice was done.”
Watching that response—cautiously worded as it is—is striking in light of more recent events: Mueller’s appointment happened only after Sessions himself, as Trump’s attorney general, had to recuse himself from Russia-related matters because of political conflicts.
He’s well-mannered and disciplined, but can’t quite fix his tie.
Mueller attended boarding school with John Kerry, and later served four years in Vietnam with the Marine Corps, and both kinds of training come across in his physical presence. He’s quite polite, and typically makes direct eye contact with his questioners. He thanks staffers who bring him a glass of water.
He can also be funny and, despite the seriousness of a job that required chasing down terrorists and all manner of bad guys, Mueller does crack a smile. “I’m sitting here, that’s all I can say,” Mueller said to laughter during his late July 2001 Senate confirmation hearing when asked how he did after taking a polygraph required for FBI managers.
Mueller’s preferred wardrobe—dark suit, red or blue tie and always a white shirt—has been closely scrutinized, even admired in the two years since he took the special counsel job. He frequently wears his watch like a military man, with the face on the inside of his wrist. He rarely diverges from that signature put-together look, but in almost every appearance I watched, his tie is slightly askew, with a noticeable cockeyed tilt to the left.
Mueller does not suffer fools gladly.
Mueller can also get testy, and clearly doesn’t like to be interrupted when he’s answering a question. And he won’t hesitate to correct members of Congress, as evidenced by a heated exchange in 2013 with Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who pressed repeatedly why the FBI had not checked out a tip that the brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing frequented a local mosque. “Your facts are not altogether … ” Mueller said as the two men talked over each other, before the FBI director added a moment later that his agents had been there and spoken to “imams several months beforehand.”
As Gohmert pressed on, Mueller drew a line. “I’ve answered the question, sir,” he said.
Mueller can also be frank. He’ll admit it when he doesn’t know an answer. And he’ll be brutally honest too, even when the response he’s giving doesn’t sound very politically appealing.
“Well, it depends on your definition of accountable, but I would say, I would say that I have not held somebody accountable in the sense of either disciplining or firing somebody,” Mueller told then-Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) during a marathon joint bicameral hearing in 2002 over five hours long examining the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
None of that may prepare us for this week’s hearings.
Mueller is a famously by-the-book operator, and many congressional insiders expect him to stick to the script from his investigation and not elaborate much beyond the 400-plus pages in his report.
But Mueller also has access to information that even Congress hasn’t seen, and that means he could really make news at any moment. So his upcoming hearings likely won’t follow the usual playbook.
“This will be a very different hearing from how Congress typically works,” said Ted Kalo, the former Democratic general counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. While members generally have a good idea what a witness’ answers will be to their questions, all bets are off for the special counsel. “Here, no one knows what will happen from minute to minute in terms of Mueller’s answers,” Kalo said.
“He’s going to bring the report to life,” added Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, when I asked what he was expecting from a Mueller hearing.
Some even say Mueller’s appearances, carried wall-to-wall live on the television networks, have the potential to open up new lines of inquiry, and perhaps even pave the way for impeachment.
“Oftentimes, public hearings can change minds,” said Greg Brower, former head of the FBI congressional affairs office. “I know this is a long shot given the current reality, but there’s even some Republicans on the Hill, if they heard Bob Mueller testify and explain the details, they too might decide that impeachment is in order.”
He knows a lot of the players already.
There’s a lot of churn on Capitol Hill, but 14 of the members who questioned Mueller on the House Judiciary Committee during his visit in June 2013 are still around. There, he faced Rep. Jerry Nadler, now the chairman, who wondered aloud whether he was getting bad information from Mueller about a post-9/11 surveillance program that Edward Snowden had just revealed details about a week earlier in a leak to The Guardian.
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), then a freshman, is now the Judiciary panel’s ranking member. (Back on that occasion, the two men ended up in agreement on the need to update federal surveillance laws.)
Another senior Democrat on the panel, California Rep. Zoe Lofgren, pressed for details during that 2013 hearing about how the FBI in its pursuit of classified information leakers differentiates between journalists who publish sensitive material and their sources.
“We quite obviously don’t consider that category that you listed as criminals in any way, shape or form,” Mueller replied in reference to reporters and editors, adding: “If you go to court on this, you have to show that this particular set of materials that were leaked went to a particular person for publication, but the focus is on the person who is doing the leaking.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, now a senior GOP Judiciary member, faced off against Mueller in 2013, grilling the departing director for not knowing who at the FBI was leading an investigation into the IRS singling out conservative Tea Party groups for additional scrutiny. “This is the most important issue in front of the country the last six weeks, you don’t know who’s heading up the case? Who the lead investigator is?” Jordan complained.
“At this junction, no, I do not know who the … ” Mueller replied, before Jordan cut him off.
When I caught up with Jordan recently to ask about Mueller’s upcoming return to Congress, the Ohio Republican said his memory remained fresh of that six-year-old exchange.
“It wasn’t an impressive performance by Mr. Mueller,” he said. “I do remember that.”
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