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The Special Counsel
The Mueller Report Retold
By Mark Caro
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With more than 350,000 copies sold, the Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Election has taken its place as the defining document of the Trump administration. Replete with some of the most infamous characters and outlandish schemes in modern American history, the underlying evidence in the Special Counsel’s written testimony could have been plucked from the script of a blockbuster movie. But at 400-plus pages of bewildering redactions and impenetrable legal analysis, the text itself is so dense that even our elected officials have admitted to leaving the report unread.
Now, stripped of legalese while still faithful to fact, The Special Counsel tells the story of what really happened in a compulsively readable-yet comprehensive-narrative. Whisking readers from Manhattan’s Trump Tower to the rural towns of Pennsylvania and the frosty streets of St. Petersburg, this book brings to vivid life the people, places, and politics that have shaped our post-2016 lives. One thing is bone-chillingly clear: our democracy is under attack and only an informed American public can save it. The Special Counsel is as necessary as it is thrilling.
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The Special Counsel is a work of fiction that is mainly factual. It is a retelling of The Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, otherwise known as The Mueller Report. That densely packed 448-page government document reflects almost two years’ work and about five hundred witnesses interviewed, with scores of figures emerging and reappearing over many overlapping chronologies. The Special Counsel attempts to streamline and de-lawyer this narrative so you can follow what the people involved actually did.
This book draws from both The Mueller Report and related indictments produced by the special counsel’s office. For example, several of The Mueller Report’s redacted passages appear to involve sometime–Donald Trump advisor Roger Stone, the redactions due presumably to the ongoing criminal case against him. But information about his activities is available in his federal criminal indictment, the rejected plea deal released by his associate Jerome Corsi, and various public accounts. Likewise, further details about social media efforts to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign and to promote Donald Trump’s could be found in the indictment of the Russians involved in the Internet Research Agency. Please keep in mind that some of the allegations found in the indictments and in the report itself have been denied by the participants.
The Special Counsel also uses official White House transcripts of news conferences, presidential statements, and interviews to flesh out exchanges mentioned in The Mueller Report. Additional context comes from contemporaneous news reports, many of which are also mentioned in the report.
At the same time, much has been reported about Russian election interference and involvement with Americans beyond what is contained in The Mueller Report. This book does not travel down many of those avenues; for example, Maria Butina and Aleksandr Torshin are not mentioned. (You should look them up, though.) The scope here parallels that of the special counsel’s report and is subject to some of the same limitations. Mueller’s office gathered much of its information from speaking to those present at the events covered; there’s a certain irony to Trump supporters’ complaints about the report’s bias, given how much of the material comes directly from people in the Trump campaign and administration. There are holes and contradictions in these witness accounts that are not resolved in the report or this book.
Most quotes in The Special Counsel come verbatim from their sources, usually The Mueller Report. Some liberties have been taken to turn partial quotes into full quotes or to convey material that had been paraphrased. (The Mueller Report: “The President said… that Sessions had ‘let [him] down.’” The Special Counsel: “You let me down.”) All such changes were intended to stay true to the spirit of what was said.
The most fictional aspect of The Special Counsel is the narration by Robert Mueller. He was not involved in the crafting of this tale, aside from his central role in gathering the information while fending off the significant forces dedicated to thwarting his work. As has been seen in his public appearances, Mueller is not a man who enjoys the spotlight, yet he wanted the substance of his investigation to be read and understood. That is the aim here.
Dear Attorney General Barr:
I previously sent you a letter dated March 25, 2019, that enclosed the introduction and executive summary for each volume of the Special Counsel’s report…
I did not want to go to paper with this. That is not how I handle my business. That is not what any of us do as a general practice. We know the game as lawyers, as professionals, as people in the government, as officials who have worked in the intelligence community. We meet. We talk. We consult. We work things out and keep the details under wraps. We do not want to draw attention to ourselves. We do not want to show someone up or to back someone into a corner.
We avoid going to paper.
A paper trail is significant. They know this. You do not go to paper just to write things down. You go to paper to create a historical record—because you think one is necessary. You are making history, and you are not confident about how it would be written otherwise.
I never wanted to make history. If my time in public service—as a marine, a US attorney, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) for twelve years, and finally as special counsel for the US Department of Justice—could have been of zero historical significance, that would have been optimal. But it was not to be.
They should have been happy that I occupy this position. There are many people, particularly in the District, who do seek attention, who seem to be acting out roles in the movies they expect to be made. The president is fond of discussing central casting, but if he were an astute man, he would desire me in this role. Mind you, I do not mean to comment upon someone else’s powers of perception. I’m merely addressing this particular point, and I leave it to you to draw any further conclusions.
What I am saying is that they could have had a showboat sitting in this chair. A Democrat could have been appointed—not that a Democrat inherently would have been any less fair as long as he or she was devoted to the law and to the Constitution. But we are living in highly partisan times, and in the president’s mind, having a Democrat as special counsel would have been his worst nightmare.
I know this because he has said repeatedly that I am a Democrat.
Which, of course, I am not.
So perhaps I should walk back that last statement. Maybe having a Democrat as special counsel is not his worst nightmare. Maybe having a registered Republican devoted to the law and to the Constitution is—which is why he must pretend that I am a Democrat. He must place his adversaries on the other side of the fence. That side of the fence, I am compelled to note, has grown rather crowded.
The president’s team shows no appreciation that I play everything by the book. They do seem not particularly interested in books.
For almost two years after I was appointed special counsel to oversee an investigation into the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election—and to explore any possible coordination between Russia and individuals in Donald Trump’s campaign—I kept silent. I did not comment. I did not leak information. I made no television appearances. I issued no statements. I said nothing.
When the president of the United States publicly called the investigation a “witch hunt” in excess of a hundred times, I did not respond.
When he tweeted that the probe was “a big Hoax by the Democrats based on payments and lies” and concluded, “There should never have been a Special Councel [sic] appointed,” I did not respond.
When he posted fourteen tweets about “the 13”—which later became 17—“Angry Democrats” pushing/rigging/leading/heading/working on “the Russian Witch Hunt,” I did not respond.
When he complained that “Mueller & his gang of Dems refuse to look at the real crimes on the other side” and called my investigation “McCarthyism at its WORST!” I did not respond.
When he accused me of having conflicts of interest with him, including “the fact that we had a very nasty & contentious business relationship,” I did not respond.
When the president’s lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, was asked about this alleged dispute, offered no details yet claimed it remains unresolved “even to this day,” and called on me to “stand up and be a man,” I did not respond.
When Mr. Giuliani, who had established his legal reputation prosecuting organized crime cases as US attorney for the Southern District of New York, boasted about the president’s efforts to discredit my work (“Mueller is now slightly more distrusted than trusted, and Trump is a little ahead of the game. So I think we’ve done really well. And my client’s happy”), I did not respond.
When I met with the president’s lawyers, I did not do so at the White House, where reporters would note my presence. Instead I invited them to conference rooms in my own offices in the southwest part of the District, the address of which remains unknown to the press.
I did not dine in restaurants where I might be recognized.
When a CNN reporter asked me point-blank in a Senate hallway, “The president thinks it’s a ‘witch hunt.’ Is there any way you can respond to that?” I continued walking and offered not even a change of expression.
Then, on March 22, 2019, I submitted to Attorney General William Barr a 448-page report capping 675 days of work, 2,800 subpoenas issued, about five hundred witnesses interviewed, almost five hundred search warrants executed, thirteen evidence requests made to foreign governments, thirty-four people indicted, and more than $25 million spent. And I offered detailed summaries of this work, no redactions necessary, to be released to Congress and the general public.
Instead, the attorney general characterized the report to Congress and the public in a way that was strictly his own. An initial appeal from me that he modify his message was rebuffed.
The president declared the report “complete and total EXONERATION” and continued to repeat, “No collusion! No obstruction!”
So here I am, committing words to paper, no matter how loath I am to do so. I thought my report was exhaustive and that no more needed to be said. It appears I was incorrect.
As we stated in our meeting of March 5 and reiterated to the Department [of Justice] early in the afternoon of March 24, the introduction and executive summaries of our two-volume report accurately summarize this Office’s work and conclusions. We communicated that concern to the Department on the morning of March 25. There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.
I sent that letter to the attorney general on March 27. A little more than three weeks later, on April 18, the attorney general released our report to the public with numerous redactions. Book-bound versions of it became instant best sellers, and hundreds of thousands of copies were sold. But like another topical publication that flew off the shelves long ago, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, it was unclear whether the people buying and downloading the report were actually reading it. The way that the president and his supporters portrayed its contents indicated that they, at least, had not—or that they were willfully misrepresenting its findings in the hope that their audience would not read for themselves what my office had uncovered.
Indeed, the website Politico reported in July 2019 that many Congress members still had not read the report.
“What’s the point?” asked Tim Scott, a Republican senator from South Carolina.
“It’s tedious,” said Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska.
“I’ve got a lot on my reading list” is how Fred Upton, a Republican representative from Michigan, shrugged it off.
Even Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee, Virginia senator Tim Kaine, had an excuse: “I didn’t have to read it. I lived it.”
“You can’t expect people to read lengthy documents in large numbers,” Jerry Nadler, a Democratic representative from New York City, told Politico. “They have their own lives to lead.”
Nadler, I will note here, is chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
On May 29, 2019, I finally did something that I hate to do: I held a news conference.
I stood in front of the cameras and spoke for less than ten minutes. I did not take questions. I directed people to seek any answers in our report.
I reiterated the seriousness of obstruction-of-justice allegations: “When a subject of an investigation obstructs that investigation or lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of their government’s effort to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable.”
I also explained that my office determined that Justice Department policy prevented us from bringing criminal charges against a sitting president, but we still collected evidence regarding possible obstructions of justice because there are other mechanisms for dealing with alleged crimes from the executive branch. “The Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” I said.
Yes, these potential remedies include a congressional pursuit of impeachment. I do not like saying that last word because then it gets blown up in headlines, but we are all intelligent adults here. This is what we are talking about.
Also, as I thought we made clear in the report, we did not exonerate the president. “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” I said.
Finally, I drew people’s attention back to volume 1 of the two-volume report. This perhaps is the less sexy part of the report, as it does not explore behind-the-scenes White House dramas and eruptions but instead the painstaking, deliberate, highly detailed work of Russian forces to disrupt our presidential election via social media, computer hacking, diplomatic back channels, and other means. The idea that a hostile foreign power can attack something as central to the American identity as our elections should be setting off alarm bells across our country. But those bells have been difficult to hear amid all of the other noise.
“I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments—that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election,” I said. “And that allegation deserves the attention of every American.”
I made myself clear on one additional point: there would be no reason for congressional Democrats to compel me to testify before them.
“The report is my testimony,” I said.
Read. The. Report.
So, naturally, on July 24, 2019, I found myself on Capitol Hill, compelled to testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees. The Democrats wanted me to read aloud what I had written in the report. I declined. What was this, story time? The same Republicans who had celebrated our report for exonerating the president were now excoriating it and me for being part of a vast conspiracy that victimized the current president and covered up the Russians’ efforts to try to get Hillary Clinton elected. Which, of course, is pure malarkey.
I was not expansive in my answers. I was a seventy-four-year-old man sitting there in my dark suit and blue tie, being forced to be the center of attention, which, to put it mildly, is not my preference. This report was not about me. It was about actions being taken against our Constitution and elections.
So I continued to state the obvious. When asked whether it was “fair to say” that the president’s only-in-writing answers to our office’s questions were incomplete and not always truthful, I replied, “Generally.” No, our work was not a “hoax” or “witch hunt.” Yes, a presidential candidate encouraging the leaking of hacked documents was “problematic,” and that was “an understatement.” No, “the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed.” And, yes, Russian attacks on our democracy remain a serious issue that is not going away.
“It wasn’t a single attempt,” I said. “They’re doing it as we sit here.”
I also told the representatives, “We spent substantial time ensuring the integrity of the report, understanding that it would be a living message to those who came after us. It is a signal, a flag to those of us who have responsibility to exercise that responsibility, not to let this kind of thing happen again.”
My “performance” was not well reviewed.
The New York Post called my testimony “a stammering, stuttering mess.” The New York Times referred to my “Labored Performance” in its headline and said I was “excruciatingly awkward” as I “stumbled” for an answer. Politico offered quotes that I was “struggling” and perhaps not “up to” testifying.
President Trump was all but popping the champagne, telling reporters, “It was a very big day for our country, it was a very big day for the Republican Party, and you could say it was a great day for me.”
So here I am, going to paper again.
In general, I do not look at what I do as storytelling. I see it as investigative work with the purpose of determining facts and possible bases for legal action. The way I present these facts is, by its very nature, lawyerly. This is what I do.
Yet for lawyers’ work to be meaningful, it must connect with its intended audience. When prosecuting or defending a criminal case, an attorney must convince those twelve people inside a jury box of someone’s innocence or guilt. That is the basis of the American legal system, the best, fairest system in the world. We must make a grand jury’s decision easy by handing them an airtight case. What we present and how this material is received must be in sync. And storytelling is involved.
I have worked my entire career to avoid the specter of politics. The pursuit of facts, the pursuit of truth, is not a political act. I believe that deep in my bones.
But the audience for my office’s report is not twelve people in a box or a grand jury. It was, first, an attorney general appointed to replace the attorney general whose actions, indirectly at least, led to my appointment. One might argue that the first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, was fired because he did not prevent my appointment and that the subsequent attorney general, William Barr, was named because the president viewed his attitudes toward this investigation to be closely aligned with his own.
The political implications there are unavoidable.
The report’s other intended audience is Congress. As you know, there is no way to remove politics from Congress.
Then there is you, the American people. You are the basis of our government—a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” as the great President Lincoln declared on the battlefield of Gettysburg. You have not only a right to know of threats to our democracy but also a responsibility to know.
The members of our government, in all three branches, are there to represent you and the values contained in our Constitution.
Members of Congress report to you.
The president reports to you.
You are their boss. This point must not be forgotten.
So please, sit down. Let me tell you this story in a way that I’ve never told it to you before. It is not a legal brief, an academic paper, or some sort of treatise. I will spare you much of the analysis, so you can focus on what people did. This is, at its root, a story with lots of characters and action.
BEFORE THE ELECTION
Let us begin by introducing a seemingly minor player who nonetheless would play a major role in much of what followed.
You might say that Yevgeniy Prigozhin was living the American dream, if not for the fact that he was a Russian conducting cyberwarfare against the United States. When he was a young man, he pursued a skiing career, but that did not work out. Soon he was serving a nine-year prison term for organized criminal activities including robbery, fraud, and involving minors in prostitution, according to an extensive profile published by the Russian online news site Meduza. Then the rags-to-riches part of this tale began.
After emerging from prison around the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Prigozhin started a hot dog business in Leningrad/St. Petersburg with his stepfather. Apparently he sold a lot of hot dogs; in an interview, he discussed not being able to count all of the rubles that piled up in his mother’s apartment. Soon he was becoming the manager of the city’s first grocery store chain, Contrast, in which he maintained a 15 percent stake.
Media accounts indicate that by 1995, he was partnering with Contrast’s commercial director to open one of St. Petersburg’s first high-end restaurants, the Old Customs House. A couple of years later, he and his partner remodeled a run-down ship docked on the Vyatka River into a fancy restaurant called New Island. This was where the elites came to dine—businesspeople, city and federal government officials, and one especially important guest: Vladimir Putin.
You may know plenty about Putin already, but given what a major figure he is in this story, let us take a moment to refresh our memories. The future Russian president and prime minister was born October 7, 1952, making him more than six years younger than Donald Trump. His sixteen years serving as a Committee for State Security (KGB) foreign intelligence officer culminated in his becoming a lieutenant colonel before he entered the world of politics. He took positions in St. Petersburg and then Moscow, and in July 1998, President Boris Yeltsin appointed him director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Russian Federation’s successor to the KGB. A little more than a year later, in August 1999, Yeltsin named Putin as acting prime minister and announced that Putin eventually should replace him as president. This happened sooner than most people expected; Yeltsin resigned on December 31, 1999, and Putin, as prime minister, rose to acting president. Putin won the presidential election the following March and a second four-year term in 2004.
As the Russian Constitution barred Putin from seeking a third consecutive term, Dmitry Medvedev succeeded him as president in 2008 and appointed Putin prime minister again, thus maintaining Putin’s hold on power. After his four-year term, Medvedev stepped aside so that Putin could regain the presidency in 2012 for a six-year term. Putin was reelected in 2018.
After the more West-friendly regimes of Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev, Putin’s time in power has been marked by an increase in tensions with the United States and European countries. Putin drew widespread outside criticism for his crackdowns on protesters, most famously following the 2012 election when the three members of the feminist Russian punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a prison colony for hooliganism. (One member was soon released on two years’ probation, while the other two served most of their sentences before being freed by a Putin amnesty proclamation.) Dozens of journalists and political opponents have been killed during Putin’s reign, and human rights advocates opposed his 2013 anti-LGBT legislation known as the “gay propaganda law,” which criminalized the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships,” such as the display of a rainbow flag or public displays of affection.
Putin also has found himself in conflict with the West over his military support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as well as the incursion of Russian forces into Ukraine and the forced annexation of Crimea.
This is not the last you will hear of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Back in the summer of 2001, the year after Putin was elected president for the first time, French president Jacques Chirac visited Russia, and Putin took him to that fancy restaurant on the rehabbed boat, New Island. Then forty years old, Prigozhin turned on his patented charm as he served the two heads of state. He must have made a good impression because Putin kept returning to the restaurant with other world leaders. Putin and US president George W. Bush dined together on the converted boat in 2002, and Prigozhin served the Russian president many times after that, earning the nickname “Putin’s chef.”
Prigozhin’s duties extended beyond his restaurant, much to his benefit. In 2008, he was hired to feed the guests at Dmitry Medvedev’s presidential inauguration. More lucrative contracts were sent Prigozhin’s way, such as the food contract for Russia’s schools, a job so big that it required the building of a factory. Prigozhin got to work, with a state-owned bank loaning him the bulk of the $53 million in construction costs, according to media accounts. When Prigozhin opened this Concord Culinary Line factory in 2010, Putin was there.
After a while, though, St. Petersburg parents were not feeling too celebratory about Concord. They complained that the food being served to their children was too processed and full of preservatives, and a television news show reported that Concord had failed to provide several St. Petersburg schools with any food. The factory was shuttered after just a year, Meduza reported.
Yet Prigozhin and Concord continued to thrive. The company won large catering contracts to serve Moscow’s schools, the Moscow mayor’s office, and, most significantly, the Russian military. In 2012, Prigozhin’s companies became responsible for more than 90 percent of all food orders for soldiers in a two-year deal worth 92 billion rubles (about $1.45 billion in mid-2019 dollars).
As Prigozhin made his riches through these government contracts, his service to Putin came to involve far more than food. In early 2012, the year in which Putin recaptured the presidency, Concord personnel delivered tea and cookies to anti-Putin protesters who were rallying “For honest elections!” Soon Concord came to an agreement with this group to provide security for their rallies.
Little did the protesters know that Prigozhin’s people, according to subsequent reports, actually were collecting information on the protest leaders to use in a TV documentary that accused the opposition of plotting a coup against the Russian government. Concord’s workers infiltrated the organization electronically as well. Dmitry Koshara, Concord’s development director who oversaw these efforts, later revealed that every fifth account on the protest’s website was one of his bots, according to the Meduza report.
Here was the future of warfare being played out: battles fought on screens. Prigozhin and Concord backed other propaganda efforts to boost Putin and to denigrate his opponents. They staged a bogus “gay” demonstration when US president Barack Obama visited in 2013. (“Obama is our president,” one sign declared.) Prigozhin also supported the founding of the pro-Russian news agency Kharkov in the Ukraine three months before the overthrow of the Putin-friendly Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich in February 2014.
- On Sale
- Dec 10, 2019
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Mulholland Books