What Will the Mueller Report Show?
John Q. Barrett, a law professor at St. John’s University who served as an associate counsel on the Iran-Contra investigation, agrees. “They are not going to get a narrative, multi-hundred-page, factually organized, appended-documents road map from Mueller,” Barrett says. “Mueller might send a five-page memo to [Attorney General William] Barr, saying, ‘I got a guilty plea from these people, and I didn’t charge these ones.’”
Though some observers, such as Mother Jones’s David Corn, have been warning about this potential outcome for months, the caution doesn’t seem to have permeated. Several intense exchanges during Barr’s confirmation hearings in January focused on whether he would release the documents, and in what form—a question that could be moot if it’s only a few pages of information that’s already known or mostly known to the public. Several publishers are hoping to replicate the success of PublicAffairs books, which scored a bestseller by hurriedly putting the Starr Report into print.
The Starr Report casts a long shadow. With its detailed chronology and salacious revelations about President Bill Clinton’s sex life, the more than 200-page document remains an astonishing read even now, more than 20 years on. While members of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s team said they never expected the report to become public—just as Leon Jaworski’s Watergate “roadmap” only came to light last year—it was written with a reading audience in mind. (Congress voted to release Starr’s report to the public.)
“The idea was to do a factual summary in part to simplify things for the reader, and also to have some indication of why you should believe Monica Lewinsky. And so that required including a lot of information about when she went to the White House, what time, how long she was there, what she heard with the president on the phone, that sort of thing,” Stephen Bates, who wrote much of the report, told The Atlantic last year, comparing the work to a Nabokov novel: “To the extent that the report is a story, it’s a story with an apparatus of footnotes or commentary. Like Pale Fire.”
Starr’s report also came just five years after Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel for Iran-Contra, released a lengthy report on his investigation. That document represented a settling of scores. Walsh was angry that President George H.W. Bush had pardoned several players in the investigation in the closing weeks of his term in office, thus short-circuiting years of work toward putting defendants on trial. The Walsh report was his chance to lay out evidence for a case that he felt cheated of the chance to make in court.
Mueller’s report comes at a different time and in different conditions. Thus far, Mueller has not had to contend with pardons sabotaging his case, though it remains a possibility. He does not seem to have any literary ambitions, and his feud with President Trump has been one-sided, rather than the hostile back-and-forth between Starr and Clinton. Perhaps more to the point, the mechanism under which Mueller was appointed is different. Walsh and Starr were both appointed under the Ethics in Government Act. Per that law, an independent counsel was required to make a report to Congress if he or she found anything impeachable. The counsel was also required to deliver a final report to a special panel of federal judges of all the cases brought and how they’d been resolved, which the court could then make public.