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- The conclusion of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference has left his future unclear.
- Mueller could be called to testify before Congress, but a 1999 law will likely limit what he can say.
- An experienced attorney, he could return to private practice or retire altogether.
- The post-investigation lives of other independent and special counsels offer hints at what his impending choice.
On Friday evening, Special Counsel Robert Mueller accompanied his wife, Ann Standish, for dinner at one of their favorite D.C. restaurants, Salt & Pepper. The unassuming venue, where the couple usually order grilled sea scallops and Caesar salad, belied the gravity of what was happening in the capital. Hours earlier, Mueller had turned in his much-anticipated report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s alleged involvement in it. As they ate, Attorney General William Barr was already at work on his equally anticipated response.
Barr’s his four-page summary, delivered to Congress on Sunday, reported that one of the most significant questions Mueller sought to answer – whether or not the President obstructed justice – remained unanswered. “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime,” Barr quoted Mueller as writing, “it also does not exonerate him.”
Even less clear than his findings, the bulk of which have not been publicly released, is the future of Mueller himself. Nearly two years after he opened the Russia probe, which ensnared dozens of Trump associates and Russian nationals, this deeply private and deliberate man still remains something of a mystery. Whatever they are, and whenever he takes them, Mueller’s next steps will almost certainly reverberate beyond him.
Here’s what could be in store for Mueller – and, potentially, the country.
Mueller could testify before Congress about the Russia investigation
The confusion surrounding the Russia investigation’s conclusion, and the questions raised by US Attorney General William Barr’s summary memo of Mueller’s report, raise the possibility that Congress would invite, or force, Mueller to testify.
Democratic leaders have expressed their intent to do just that. In January, Rep. Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN: “If necessary, we’ll get Mueller to testify.” And in February, his counterpart on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, issued an even stronger promise: “We will bring Bob Mueller in to testify before Congress.” The GOP leader of the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, has supported their plan.
If Mueller were to testify, he would be constrained by a 1999 law that limits what special counsels may disclose about investigations they oversee. The impetus for the law was the tenure of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, whose sprawling inquiry into the Clinton administration led directly to President Clinton’s impeachment in the US Senate. (The law also replaced the role of “independent counsel,” which was Starr’s title, with “special counsel,” although these and related terms are often used interchangeably.)
Only two other people have filled roles comparable to those of Starr and Mueller: special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald, who investigated the leak of covert CIA agent Valerie Plame during the George W. Bush administration, and independent counsel Lawrence Walsh, who investigated the Reagan administration’s covert sale of weaponry to Iran.
Both men undertook multi-year probes concerning allegations of criminal conduct by government officials in or close to the White House. Walsh testified before Congress, but Fitzgerald, who was subject to the 1999 law, did not. (Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, was removed by Richard Nixon after only 155 days in office in an event now known as the Saturday Night Massacre.)
Mueller could return to the private sector, where he previously worked as an attorney
In 2013, Mueller left a long career in the federal government, capped by his 12-year-long tenure as the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He went to Stanford University, where he taught classes on cybersecurity, and became a partner at WilmerHale, a white-shoe law firm in Washington, D.C. He resigned from the firm when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed him as special counsel in 2017.
Would Mueller return to private practice? The post-investigation lives of his predecessors offer a hint. Starr pursued a career in law and academia, the latter of which ended in scandal in 2016, when he resigned as president and chancellor of Baylor University in Texas for allegedly botching a number of sexual assault investigations. Finally, Fitzgerald returned to his position as the US Attorney for Northern District of Illinois, and later joined the New York City law firm Skadden Arps. Walsh, who had been retired before his appointment, returned to retirement.
Mueller could permanently retire
Could Mueller retire for good? His financial disclosure forms, released in 2017, showed that he and Standish had financial assets valued somewhere between $4.2 million and $15.2 million – more than enough to stop working for good. And one important metric – his age – suggests retirement is not only possible but likely.
Mueller would not be the oldest special counsel (or equivalent role) at the time of their investigation wound down. Walsh, for example, was 81 when he finally turned in his report, a reflection of his decision to exit retirement at the time of his appointment in 1986.
But Mueller’s more recent predecessors were significantly younger. Starr was 52 when the Clinton probe wrapped up. Fitzgerald, the last special counsel before Mueller, was 43.
Mueller, by contrast, is 74 – well into traditional retirement age.
What retirement would hold for Mueller is, of course, another mystery. He could take a more public role, perhaps in a manner similar to James Comey. He could write a book about the investigation, as Walsh did in 1997 and as Starr did last year.
Or, as he’s done for most of his time as special counsel, he could say nothing at all.
The Special Counsel’s Office didn’t return a message asking about Mueller’s future plans.
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