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Under fire from Trump, Giuliani and Fox, Robert Mueller has a novel PR strategy: Silence

Since his appointment 16 months ago as special counsel, Robert
Mueller has granted no interviews and held no news conferences.
The spokesman for his office is known around Washington as “Mr.
No-Comment.” Even public sightings are rare: A photograph of
Mueller at an airport gate, with Donald Trump Jr. in the
background, went viral.

Silence as a public relations strategy is risky, especially for
someone who is impugned almost daily by Fox News pundits, Trump
allies like Rudy Giuliani and tweets from the president
himself. Supporters fear that the fusillade is eroding public
confidence in the special counsel’s investigation of Russian
interference in the 2016 election before Mueller has a chance
to present his findings.

“The risk you always assume is, if your critics and your
opponents are the only ones doing the talking, then they get to
write the headlines,” said Kevin Madden, a communications
strategist who served as a spokesman for the Justice Department
under President George W. Bush.

Yet veterans of similar investigations say that keeping quiet
may be Mueller’s only viable option, given the limited set of
strategies available for federal prosecutors to communicate
with the public. By law, special counsels must follow Justice
Department guidelines that restrict them from sharing details
about pending investigations, making leaks a potential criminal
matter.

It’s hurtful and painful, but a prosecutor’s job is not to
necessarily weigh a PR battle against political forces that
are throwing everything at him

Liberals have urged Mueller to fight back against President
Donald Trump’s invective, but predecessors who tried to defend
themselves in the press have gotten burned. Kenneth Starr, the
prosecutor who investigated the Clinton White House, gave
impromptu news conferences while taking out the garbage at his
Virginia home — and ended up disliked by two-thirds of the
public by the time he stepped down.

“It’s hurtful and painful, but a prosecutor’s job is not to
necessarily weigh a PR battle against political forces that are
throwing everything at him,” said Ken Gormley, author of books
about Starr and Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who was
fired by President Richard M. Nixon during the “Saturday Night
Massacre” in 1973.

Kenneth
Starr .
David Scull/Bloomberg News

“Once you’re goaded into becoming a political player,” Gormley
added, “it looks as if you’re just another participant in this
mud pit.”

Mueller, 74, has special reason to be cautious, given a
political climate where the subtlest remark can be blown into a
scandal. Even if he were to speak publicly, his choice of news
outlet and interviewer would most likely be scrutinized for
signs of bias.

So Mueller, a former FBI director and Marine Corps officer
known for his self-discipline and meticulousness, has chosen to
let his work speak for him. In 16 months, he has produced
indictments against three companies and 34 people, including a
group of 12 suspected Russian intelligence agents; last month,
his work led to a conviction, on eight counts, of Trump’s
former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.

You know how sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime?
In this case, the investigation was much worse than the
no-crime

In June, Mueller’s approval rating hit a low: A Politico poll
showed that 36 percent of registered voters viewed him
unfavourably, up from 23 percent a year earlier. His reputation
has improved since then: A poll released this week by
Quinnipiac University found that 55 percent of voters said he
was conducting a fair investigation; 32 percent said he was
not.

Still, the offensive against the special counsel is unlikely to
stop.

In May last year, the day after Mueller assumed his role, Trump
wrote on Twitter: “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a
politician in American history!” The president’s use of “witch
hunt” has lately skyrocketed, and he recently exhorted his
online followers to “study the late Joseph McCarthy, because we
are now in period with Mueller and his gang that make Joseph
McCarthy look like a baby!”

Sean Hannity of Fox News made the “Mueller Crime Family” a
mantra for his nearly 4 million nightly viewers, the biggest
audience in cable news. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of
Infowars also joined in, suggesting with no evidence that the
special counsel covered up a pedophilia ring and pantomimed
shooting Mueller with a pistol.

In
this April 12, 2018 file photo, Fox News personality Sean Hannity
attends The Hollywood Reporter’s annual 35 Most Powerful People
in Media event in New York.
Evan
Agostini/Invision/AP

Since joining the president’s legal team in April, Giuliani has
been an especially sharp critic, telling Hannity: “You know how
sometimes the cover-up is worse than the crime? In this case,
the investigation was much worse than the no-crime.” He has
been explicit about the purpose of these attacks: to discredit
the investigation in the eyes of the public and make it less
likely that Congress will act on its findings.

“What we’re doing here, it’s public opinion,” Giuliani told CNN
in May. “Because eventually the decision here is going to be
impeach or not impeach.”

Through it all, Mueller has held his tongue, save for a single
statement on the day he was appointed: “I accept this
responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my
ability.”

And if the silent strategy is a gamble, he is all in.

Typically in Washington, press aides find ways to guide
reporters, even without offering on-the-record quotes. An
informal comment like “I won’t wave you off that” can serve as
a nod to inquisitive journalists; “I’d steer clear” is a
warning that something is off base.

Eventually the decision here is going to be impeach or not
impeach

Reporters at several print and television outlets who cover the
special counsel said Mueller’s representatives did not go even
that far. Journalists are accustomed to receiving
just-the-facts emails from his office, with little more than a
link to the latest public legal filing.

Mueller’s spokesman, Peter Carr, a registered Republican and a
former press secretary to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, works from
an undisclosed location and is rarely quoted. (He declined to
comment for this article.) On the occasions when Carr does make
a statement, it usually concerns the special counsel’s
professionalism, rather than the investigation itself.

After Mueller was spotted at the airport with Trump’s son, Carr
issued a careful reply: “If it’s accurate that the other person
in the photo was Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Mueller was not aware of
him and had no interaction with him.”

What information has emerged about Mueller’s work, reporters
said, often emanates from people outside his team: witnesses or
defence lawyers who have had dealings with investigators. Those
sources have their own biases, and reporters said the result
could be a frustrating lack of clarity on the investigation as
a whole.

In
this file photo taken on August 16, 2018 U.S. President Donald
Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the
White House in Washington, DC.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty
Images

“He is insulating and protecting himself to the greatest extent
possible, which he feels is necessary to protect him and his
team from any external attack of being perceived as doing any
grandstanding whatsoever,” said Randall Samborn, a former
communications director for Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special
counsel whose leak investigation, starting in 2003, led to
charges against Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I.
Lewis Libby Jr.

Madden, the former Justice Department spokesman, said the
opacity was by design. “Mueller has starved the media,” he
said, so that reporters will focus on the evidence. “He
believes that’s what matters most.”

Partisan warfare over special prosecutors is nothing new. Just
as Trump’s supporters in government and the news media have
vilified Mueller, Bill Clinton’s aides tore into Starr,
labeling him an obsessive zealot.

“As with mosquitoes, horseflies and most bloodsucking
parasites, Kenneth Starr was spawned in stagnant water,” wrote
James Carville, one of Clinton’s top strategists, in a 176-page
book he published in 1999 that was dedicated to bashing the
special counsel. (The title: “… And the Horse He Rode in On:
The People v. Kenneth Starr.”)

Unlike the stoic Mueller, Starr could not resist returning
fire. Papers unsealed last month by the National Archives
showed that he authorized one of his lawyers to engage with
reporters “to explain a legal position or to rebut allegations
that Judge Starr was ‘some sort of right-wing fanatic.’”

Encouraged by allies to defend himself, Starr hired a
professional media wrangler to soften his image and accuse the
Clinton White House of spreading misinformation. That did not
end well: The Starr spokesman, Charles G. Bakaly III, ended up
prosecuted for illegal leaks, though he was ultimately cleared.

Gormley said that fighting back did not benefit Starr. “He was
perceived by a large segment of the population as someone who
was on a witch hunt, out to get the president,” Gormley said.
“In hindsight, he wished he had done a number of things
differently.” (Reached for this article, Starr said he would be
open to an interview, but did not respond to subsequent
messages.)

Of course, Starr, like Cox in the Nixon era, did not have to
contend with a social media-savvy president maligning his work
hour by hour, or a cable news network whose commentators were
overwhelmingly critical of his work. Mueller, the first special
counsel of the Twitter age, is living out a high-stakes case
study in prosecutorial public relations.

“The more this investigation moves from the legal arena to the
political arena, the riskier it is for Mueller to remain
silent,” said Alex Conant, a Republican communications
strategist.

And Stu Loeser, a former press secretary to Michael Bloomberg
and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., noted that Mueller was up
against a president with an unusual mastery of media.

“The facts alone,” Loeser said, “may not make the sale for all
Americans.”

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