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Robert Mueller’s Most Important Accomplishment

The special counsel's Russia investigation has a lot to show for its 12 months of work, but one feat stands out.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Thursday marks a year since Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation, and in that time I’ve written a lot about the known unknowns of his work. We don’t know everyone he’s interviewed. We don’t know what evidence he’s gathered. We don’t know what further charges he may bring against people around the president. We don’t know if he’ll recommend that Congress open impeachment hearings for President Donald Trump.

But we also know quite a bit about Mueller’s work since last May. All the available evidence indicates that he’s running a competent, disciplined, and thorough investigation. He’s maintained those standards under extraordinary circumstances on a matter of immense national consequence. And he’s upheld the inquiry’s integrity even while Trump threatens to fire him and Republicans in Congress continually try to undermine his work.

Americans are drawn to bold figures who rise above politics and clean up Washington. Trump played to that cultural bias during the campaign, portraying himself as an outsider whose wealth would insulate him from corruption and empower him to “drain the swamp.” But it’s Mueller, if anyone, who fits this cultural archetype. Over the past twelve months, the former FBI director has upheld the best traditions of the American civil service, rightly becoming an icon for the rule of law in an era when the concept itself is under siege.

One of the most startling things about Mueller’s inquiry is how rapidly it has advanced. Patrick Fitzgerald, the last high-profile special prosecutor to vex a presidency, went silent for almost two years after his appointment in 2003 to investigate who leaked the identity of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame. (He dramatically resurfaced to announce charges against Scooter Libby, whom Trump pardoned last month in what many saw as a veiled threat to Mueller. Fitzgerald recently joined former FBI Director James Comey’s legal team.)

By comparison, Mueller’s investigation has been action packed. He’s brought charges against 19 people to date in the past six months. Thirteen of them are Russians, effectively beyond Mueller’s reach. The other six defendants aren’t so lucky. He’s secured plea agreements from former national security advisor Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign deputy chairman Rick Gates, and former Trump foreign-policy aide George Papadopoulos, all of whom have agreed to cooperate in exchange for lighter sentencing. Richard Pinedo pleaded guilty to supplying Russians with bank account numbers, while Dutch lawyer Alex van der Zwaan received a 30-day sentence for lying to investigators. The trial of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, is expected to begin this summer.

Mueller’s primary charge is to investigate the extent of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. In February, he brought a series of indictments against Russian nationals and companies for conspiracy and wire fraud-related crimes. That indictment described a modest but effective campaign to exploit American racial and cultural divisions in an effort to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy and bolster Trump’s. It’s impossible to measure the impact of this campaign, but Mueller has done a valuable service by mapping the extent of Russian influence operations on social media, some of which had been previously reported by news outlets.

It’s harder to assess unfinished portions of Mueller’s work. The special counsel has yet to announce charges connected to the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign emails. He hasn’t tipped his hand on what he’s learned about the Trump campaign’s interactions with Moscow during the election. And he hasn’t indicated what conclusions he’s reached about whether Trump committed obstruction of justice by firing FBI Director James Comey last May.

From what’s publicly known, however, Mueller appears to be pursuing these questions with all appropriate zeal. Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo, after an interview with the special counsel’s office last month, told CNN that his questioners “know more about the Trump campaign than anyone who ever worked there.” He also indicated that Mueller’s team interrogated him about Russian collusion. “The Senate and the House are net fishing,” Caputo told the network. “The special counsel is spearfishing. They know what they are aiming at and are deadly accurate.”

Mueller also continues to stumble upon unrelated white-collar crimes. For example, he’s charged Manafort with laundering money, committing tax fraud, and failing to register as a foreign agent—with the goal, most legal observers think, of trying to pressure Manafort into cooperating with authorities. Manafort’s longtime deputy Rick Gates already took that option in February. (Mueller’s invocation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act also had the side effect of prompting a wave of D.C. lobbyists to register with the Justice Department for the first time.)

And Mueller is shedding light on the shady world of cash and influence in Washington. Tony Podesta, an influential Democratic lobbyist, resigned from his namesake firm last October after Mueller’s indictments of Manafort turned up connections between the firm and Manafort’s foreign-lobbying work for Ukraine’s pro-Moscow government. Podesta had amassed a fortune by leveraging his deep connections in Democratic politics on behalf of corporate and foreign clients. But a casual brush with Mueller scared away the firm’s clients and eventually led to its collapse.

A similar fate may have befallen Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer and personal attorney. FBI agents stunned the political world last month with a surprise raid on Cohen’s office and residences for evidence of alleged white-collar crimes. Cohen’s lawyer said he was told the investigation reached the federal prosecutors’ office in Manhattan through a referral from Mueller’s office. Reports later emerged that Mueller questioned companies last fall about their business dealings with Cohen after Trump was elected.

It’s unclear how Cohen factors into Mueller’s investigation at this stage. The federal prosecutors’ office in Manhattan appears to be acting independently of the special counsel’s office, suggesting that whatever they’re probing doesn’t fall under the broader Russia investigation. Either way, it’s startling how much potential evidence of corruption Mueller’s brought to light, apparently by accident.

“I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability,” Mueller said in a one-line statement after his appointment on May 17, 2017. Those were his last public comments to date.

Though he’s been one of the dominant figures in American politics for the last year, Mueller doesn’t give interviews, hold press conferences, or make speeches. Avid followers of the Russia investigation’s twists and turns may have noticed that news outlets keep using the same photos of him over and over again. That’s because he hasn’t been seen in public since last June, save for an eagle-eyed Twitter user who spotted him at a downtown D.C. crosswalk in March. This relatively blank slate allows Americans to project their own beliefs and biases onto the former FBI director.

For those who oppose Trump and his policies, Mueller has become an indefatigable symbol of justice and honor. On a Reddit forum titled “/r/the_mueller”—a nod to /r/the_donald—users swap Russia-related news alongside paeans to Mueller’s integrity and photos of his piercing glare. On Saturday Night Live, veteran actor Robert de Niro portrays him as a tough, implacable prosecutor. launched a project in March to organize nationwide rallies at a moment’s notice if Trump ousts Mueller; more than 300,000 people had registered to take part by April.

Mueller also has plenty of opponents who see him as a threat to Trump’s political survival. California Representative Devin Nunes has wrecked the credibility of the House Intelligence Committee in what appears to be a tireless quest to undermine Mueller’s investigation. Sean Hannity and other Fox News pundits spend night after night constructing an alternate reality in which Hillary Clinton and other Democrats are leading a “deep state” coup against a victimized Trump. (Mueller is a lifelong Republican.)

Earlier this week, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly claimed that Mueller’s investigation is making things awkward for Trump when he meets with foreign counterparts. “There may not be a cloud, but certainly the president is, you know, somewhat embarrassed, frankly,” he told NPR in a rare interview. “When world leaders come in... you know the first couple of minutes of every conversation might revolve around that kind of thing.”

It’s no surprise that Trump, who is patently insecure and hounded by doubts about his legitimacy as president, would feel uncomfortable about a special counsel scrutinizing him and his inner circle. But nobody else should. Americans can instead take pride that they live in a society where even a president must obey the criminal-justice process. Mueller’s investigation is the clearest possible expression of a fundamental democratic principle: No man is above the law.