Expert Commentary

Reporting on the Mueller report: Tips from Garrett Graff

Journalist and historian Garrett Graff, who has written extensively about special counsel Robert Mueller, offers insights to help reporters cover Mueller's federal investigation and its main findings.

Journalist Garrett Graff, right, and Shorenstein Center Director Nicco Mele, left.
Journalist Garrett Graff, right, and Shorenstein Center Director Nicco Mele, left, on April 2, 2019. (Shorenstein Center photo)

Garrett Graff is a magazine journalist who writes about politics, technology and national security. One of his areas of expertise: Robert Mueller, the former director of the FBI appointed in 2017 as special counsel to oversee the federal government’s investigation into possible Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election.

Graff’s first big piece on Mueller was a profile that ran in the Washingtonian in 2008. Since then, he has written extensively about him. His book The Threat Matrix, published in 2012, offers a close look at Mueller in his role as the FBI’s sixth director. Just this week, the reading platform Scribd launched Graff’s ebook and audiobook Mueller’s War, which examines Mueller’s time as a Marine in the Vietnam War, as part of its Scribd Originals original content initiative.

The public has been waiting nearly two years for Mueller to complete his investigation. Late last month, Mueller submitted his final report to Attorney General William Barr, who released only a four-page summary of Mueller’s main conclusions in a letter to Congressional leaders on March 24. It’s unclear whether and when the entire report, which reportedly exceeds 300 pages, will be released.

Among Mueller’s key findings, according to Barr’s summary: While Russia attempted to interfere with the 2016 election, Mueller’s investigation “did not find that the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it conspired or coordinated with Russia in its efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

Mueller also investigated “a number of actions by the President” that he believed were “potentially raising obstruction-of-justice concerns,” Barr wrote. Barr quoted Mueller as saying that while his investigation “does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

Graff spoke publicly for first the time about Barr’s summary of the Mueller report during a recent event hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, which runs Journalist’s Resource. While Graff was visiting the center, JR met with him briefly to ask more about his take on the issue and journalists’ coverage of the investigation and its findings.

Here’s an excerpt from our interview with Graff — eight of our questions and his responses, which offer insights into the importance of developing government sources over the long-term and how local newsrooms should cover Mueller’s investigation results.




What do you think has been missing from news coverage of the Mueller investigation and Barr’s summary? For example, are journalists missing any particular angles or leaving out important questions?

“The biggest thing to me is simply I’m really surprised at how quickly people feel like they know what’s in the Mueller report and have moved on. I think it’s really important to keep drawing the distinction for now that we haven’t seen the Mueller report. We have only seen the Barr report on the Mueller report … I’m surprised at the number of journalists either in their stories or news organizations in their headlines that have presumed that we know what the Mueller report says.”


Can we trust that Barr’s summary is accurate and reflects the high points of the Mueller report?

I think we can assume that Barr considers it an accurate summary of the top-line conclusions and that the letter, overall, is close enough to what Mueller concluded that Mueller doesn’t feel obligated to object to it publically. Beyond that, though, I think there’s plenty of reason to be wary of the lens that Barr has put on it until we see Mueller’s own words and his own framing of some of these questions.”


According to Barr’s summary, Mueller did not make a prosecutorial decision on the obstruction of justice question. Mueller wrote that while his report “does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Knowing what you know about Mueller, what does this signal for you?

“In theory, the entire point of a special counsel is to have someone make tough decisions outside of the structure of the normal political appointees. So to have a scenario where Mueller, who through his entire career has never shied away from making tough decisions, decides not to make the tough decision about the one thing he’s been tasked to do for two years is really puzzling. And that’s why it seems really clear that there’s more that we need to understand about how Mueller himself has framed that choice and whether he never intended, for instance, to make a traditional prosecutorial decision on the obstruction question.”


During your talk today, you said that Mueller may have approached this from a political angle instead of a criminal one. Can you talk more about that?

“It’s possible he always saw the obstruction question as a political one rather than a criminal one. If he is operating under the standard justice department policy that the president cannot be indicted while in office, then that likely could have meant he never thought he would bring a charge himself but would only be turning something over to Congress for them to weigh whether it rose to the bar of high crimes and misdemeanors.”


Journalists today are often generalists who parachute into news stories and write about people after seeing them at a press conference for a few minutes. Can you talk about the value of spending time on a beat, getting to know key government officials for many years?

“I’ve been lucky, as a journalist, to range widely but always to be able to go deep on stories when I wanted to and I have written now several books in this national security and federal law enforcement space. It just gives you an entirely different perspective about how these institutions work and also, in general, it really helps to understand that most people doing these jobs get up every day trying to do the right thing. There may be legitimate disagreement about what the right thing is. But there aren’t that many people working inside the government who are getting up actually trying to do bad things. And I think that’s an important perspective to keep in mind, especially as our politics become more hyper-partisanized.”


If you were a reporter at a local paper — say the Wichita Eagle or the Miami Herald — how would you be reporting about the Mueller report and its implications?

“One of the questions to press on if you’re a local reporter is: Is the behavior that we have seen for the Trump campaign in 2016 acceptable? There is this question of whether there are all sorts of things [Trump is accused of doing] that may not be provable federal felonies. But is this behavior or are these actions that we want to be part of our democratic process? And should the Trump campaign or its leadership or future campaigns pay a price for that behavior?”


Thinking about the news coverage so far, in what areas have journalists gotten something wrong — or not quite right? 

“Legal matters often hinge on very specific language. And it’s easy to misread some of these documents as either saying more or less than they actually say if you’re not familiar with the legal structure that would underpin what the document says. For the most part, though, actually, the journalism has been exceptional around the Mueller and Russia questions. In some ways, the lack of excitement that has come with the end of the Mueller probe is a testament to how good the reporting has been along the way. We are not surprised by the conclusions.”


Is there anything else journalists should know about their coverage in terms of its strengths or how it can be improved?

“One of the great lessons of this entire investigation is the value of long-term understanding of players. Paul Manafort, Robert Mueller, Roger Stone, Bill Barr and Donald Trump are all people who have been around for decades in American politics and the Justice Department, etcetera. I think you’ve seen incredibly good journalism coming out of journalists who have known these folks and known them for a long time. It’s a lesson into the long view of covering sources.”


If you’re looking for more journalism tips, check out these Q&As with Washington Post reporter Eugene Scott, who talks about covering identity politics, and Harvard Business School professor Eugene Soltes, who shares advice on interviewing white-collar criminals.