The political world was stunned on July 24, 2019, when Trump-Russia special counsel Robert Mueller testified before the House and Senate. It was not anything Mueller said that shocked observers — it was his demeanor. The 74-year-old special counsel appeared confused at times. He sometimes had difficulty answering the most basic questions. He had difficulty forming complex sentences.
The Mueller at the witness table was a far cry from the Mueller who took over the FBI 18 years earlier. Colleagues remembered a man who was super sharp, on top of everything, a micromanager. Now, many of those watching were concerned.
"This is delicate to say," former Obama aide David Axelrod tweeted, "but Mueller, whom I deeply respect, has not publicly testified before Congress in at least six years. And he does not appear as sharp as he was then."
Fox News's Chris Wallace was more blunt: "I think it's been a disaster for the Democrats," he said, "and I think it's been a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller."
Twitter buzzed with talk about Mueller. But President Trump's legal team was not surprised.
More than a year earlier, at a meeting in April 2018, the president's lawyers had gotten a disturbing look at Mueller's condition. And even before that, they had cause to be concerned about Mueller's possible cognitive issues and what those problems might mean for the special counsel investigation.
The meeting took place on April 24, 2018. Rudy Giuliani had just joined Trump's defense team. Attorney John Dowd had left the team, and two other white-collar defense lawyers, Jane and Marty Raskin, had joined. Given all those changes, it was decided that the new lineup should have a get-acquainted meeting with the Mueller team.
After opening niceties, the conversation turned to a number of legal topics and specifically to the longstanding opinion from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel that a sitting president cannot be indicted. It was not an obscure or arcane issue. It was, in fact, perhaps the key legal question in the entire special counsel investigation. But Mueller could not recall it. The old Mueller, of course, would have known all about it. But on that day in April, the Mueller at the meeting could not remember. It was, to say the least, extraordinary that he could not discuss something so basic to the case.
"Bob said, 'I'll have to get back to you on that,'" recalled Giuliani, "and it was apparent that he didn't know what we were talking about." A Mueller staffer stepped in to cover for the special counsel, assuring the Trump team that the prosecutors knew about the issue and would get back to them. "There were a couple of other little facts that came up — it didn't seem like he knew about them," Giuliani remembered, "and [Mueller’s staff] would lean over and tell him."
That was the only time Giuliani ever met with Mueller face-to-face. Afterward, "I had no more contact with him," Giuliani said. "None of us did until it was over." Lawyer Jane Raskin, who was also in the meeting, had the same experience. "After that, we never met with Mueller, and we never spoke with him on the phone," Raskin recalled. "It was all Jim Quarles and Andrew Goldstein" — two of Mueller's senior prosecutors.
Throughout this time, Giuliani kept in touch with Dowd, the former Trump defense lawyer. The two sometimes discussed Mueller's demeanor. "I said, 'John, I'm really surprised about how little he knows about the case,'" Giuliani recalled. The issues weren't really that complicated, and Mueller had been in it for a year. Giuliani thought Mueller was perhaps just not giving it his all. "John said, 'I had the same impression,'" Giuliani remembered. "He said, 'I think he sort of retired, he came back to do this, and now, he probably regrets it.' I said, 'OK' — and that's what I would have told you the day before he testified." The day Mueller appeared on Capitol Hill, Giuliani saw without any doubt that something was wrong.
Mueller's staff built a protective wall around him. After that April 2018 meeting, no one from the Trump team could see Mueller or talk to him on the phone. When Trump lawyers called with some concern they wanted to address with Mueller, a top aide would listen, make some notes, and say, "We'll take it to Bob."
A few months earlier, in February 2018, a former Trump defense team member, communications adviser Mark Corallo, was questioned by Mueller's prosecutors. (They were interested in learning about Trump's July 8, 2017, response to the New York Times's reporting of the infamous Trump Tower meeting.) Corallo, who had worked with Mueller in the George W. Bush Justice Department, was a Mueller admirer. The questioning, by Mueller aides, was professionally done and unremarkable. Afterward, Mueller himself appeared.
"At the end of the interview, Mueller came in and shook my hand and put his hand around my shoulder and said, 'It's good to see you,'" Corallo recalled. "He said, 'I'm sorry you got dragged into this.' When he left the room, and they were waiting to put me in a car to leave, I said to Andrew Goldstein, 'Hey, how's he doing?' They said great. I said, 'Well, he looks a little gaunt. Is he eating? Is he tired?' They said, 'No, he's running circles around us.' This was the first time I noticed that he was not physically robust."
Nearly a year and a half later, watching Mueller testify on television, Corallo was shaken. "When I saw him testifying, it was significantly more apparent," he recalled. "And trust me, I was not the only one. Those of us who worked with Bob at the Justice Department after 9/11 and watched his testimony — the phone calls were flying. 'Holy crap, what's wrong with Bob? Is he sick?'"
In 2019, as the release of the Mueller report neared, others saw reason for concern. Attorney General William Barr, an old friend of Mueller's, knew there was a problem. On March 5, 2019, Mueller and a few top aides went to the Justice Department to preview the report. Seeing Mueller, whose hands were trembling and voice was weak, Barr and his top aides were "taken aback," wrote the Washington Post reporters Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig in their book A Very Stable Genius: Donald J. Trump's Testing of America. "Barr would later ask his colleagues, 'Did he seem off to you?' Later, close friends would say they noticed Mueller had changed dramatically, but a member of Mueller's team would insist he had no medical problems."
After the report was released, Democrats demanded that Mueller testify on Capitol Hill. Mueller and his office hesitated; Mueller clearly did not want to appear. With his difficulties, the prospect of spending hours in the spotlight was decidedly unappealing. Barr offered Mueller a way out. On a trip to South Carolina on July 8, 2019, the attorney general was asked about the question of testimony and said he was "disappointed" to see that Mueller had been subpoenaed. "It seems to me, the only reason for doing that [to have Mueller testify] is to create some kind of public spectacle," Barr said. "If he decides he doesn't want to be subjected to that, the DOJ will certainly back that."
Barr was sending a signal to Mueller: You don't have to put yourself through this. But Democrats, still hoping to impeach Trump on the basis of the Mueller report, demanded a televised Watergate moment. So Mueller testified. And it was a disaster. Afterward, as Corallo said, the phone calls were flying: What's wrong with Bob?
These and other aspects of the story are reported in my new book, Obsession: Inside the Washington Establishment's Never-Ending War on Trump. Questions about Mueller's fitness came up repeatedly in interviews with key players in the Trump defense and on Capitol Hill. It quickly became apparent, during the reporting, that Mueller's condition had been a problem. (The book also contains an account from a former FBI official who had worked with Mueller and who noticed signs of problems several months before Mueller was appointed special counsel.)