Remember him? This summer, the US and its media were still scurrying to keep up with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s unfolding investigation into Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. On August 1, Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s many attorneys, told a Republican campaign event in New Hampshire that the upcoming midterms would amount to a referendum on whether to impeach the president. At the time, Giuliani was hardly alone in that thought. Later that month, former campaign chair Paul Manafort was convicted, Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen testified that Trump had directed him to commit a crime, and Giuliani himself infamously told NBC’s Chuck Todd, “Truth isn’t truth.”
In the weeks since, however, Mueller has gone under the radar. His investigation is reportedly eschewing the spotlight to avoid giving the impression that it has its thumb on the electoral scale. On the media side, meanwhile, a succession of huge stories has submerged the probe: the deaths of John McCain and Jamal Khashoggi, the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, natural disasters, mass shootings, and now, Trump’s relentless focus on the migrant “caravan.”
Below the tumult, the Mueller beat has continued to drum a steady pace. Most days have seen a juicy tidbit somewhere in the mediasphere. We’ve learned, for instance, about longtime Trump associate Roger Stone’s alleged ties to WikiLeaks, with Mueller reportedly bearing down on whether the Trump campaign had prior knowledge of the “October Surprise” dump of emails from inside Hillary Clinton’s camp. The scoops have not stopped there. In the last week alone, Bloomberg reported that the Cohen grand jury is investigating other individuals, former campaign aide George Papadopoulos told Fox & Friends he might reverse his plea deal, and The Washington Post revealed that Steve Bannon sat down for yet another interview with Mueller’s team.
Over the last few days, the investigation has resurfaced because of a smear campaign against it involving planted allegations of sexual assault against Mueller. A story that briefly appeared on the right-wing Gateway Pundit blog Tuesday was swiftly debunked when journalists linked it to a firm tied to 20-year-old Twitter troll Jacob Wohl. When reporters rang the phone number on the firm’s website, it redirected to Wohl’s mom’s voicemail.
Yesterday, more serious stories appeared. In addition to further developments in the Stone case, Politico published an analysis by a former federal prosecutor suggesting that Mueller may already have subpoenaed Trump. The article’s speculative nature drew some skepticism on Twitter, but it was shared widely, including by Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Trump attorney Jay Sekulow messaged a rebuttal to the Times’s Maggie Haberman. Later on, Trump himself denied the report during a pool spray.
With so many big stories fighting for airtime, it’ll likely take something more concrete than a leak or bungled hoax for Mueller’s investigation to cut back into the narrative ahead of Tuesday’s elections. Credible reporting from the Post and others, however, suggests that the special counsel is preparing to re-enter public life once polls close. The midterms have not proven to be a referendum on Mueller, but the Mueller news cycle is far from over.
Below, more from the quiet Mueller beat:
- The rolling Stone probe: Jerome Corsi, a conspiracy theorist and former DC bureau chief for Infowars, has emerged as a key figure in Mueller’s investigation of Stone. ABC’s Ali Dukakis reported last night that Corsi may have had advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’s Clinton campaign email dump.
- The back catalog: Archivists yesterday released a long-withheld report that formed part of the Watergate investigation in the 1970s. The Post reports the document was unsealed following appeals from a former Nixon defense lawyer and three legal analysts who have argued that it could serve as a road map for Mueller.
- “Mueller time”: Also in the Post, columnist Paul Waldman writes: “It’s looking as though the special counsel’s investigation is approaching its climax. Even if Trump doesn’t have to answer questions, we’ll learn what Mueller has discovered about what he and his aides did in 2016. Even if Trump gets a new attorney general after the midterms and orders that person to fire Mueller, it will probably be too late. And then it’ll be up to the political system—Congress and the voters—to decide what to do about it.”
- The sound of silence: Another reason Mueller’s investigation has been pushed down the midterms news cycle is that politicians don’t want to address it. In late August, an analysis by FiveThirtyEight suggested that Congressional Democrats were largely avoiding talk of impeachment. And in mid-October, Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn reported that operatives from both parties have intentionally skirted the issue on the campaign trail because “voters don’t want to talk about it either.”
Other notable stories:
- In a first official statement nearly a month after the fact, Istanbul’s chief prosecutor said the Saudi dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi was strangled as soon as he entered his country’s consulate in the city, before his body was dismembered and disposed off by a “local collaborator” in a premeditated attack. The search for Khashoggi’s remains continues.
- Forbes’s Madeline Berg and Lauren Debter asked the 11 board members of 21st Century Fox—all but one of whom were born abroad, are immigrants, or have immigrant parents—about Fox News’s recent anti-immigrant rhetoric. Not one would give comment. In The Washington Post, meanwhile, Erik Wemple writes that the moderation of Shep Smith cannot save the network as a whole: “Nothing that Smith says during his Fox News program—no matter how sick his burns on Trump might be—neutralizes the impact of [Lou] Dobbs or Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson or dozens of other Fox talking heads. Nothing.”
- For CJR, Philip Eil offers a series of pointers for citizens on how to criticize the work of the press in a responsible way. “In a world in which reporters are called ‘scum,’ ‘disgusting,’ ‘enemies’ and much worse, it’s worth stating—and restating—that journalists are human beings,” Eil writes. “We are flesh-and-blood people with spouses, friends, parents, children, pets, memories, hobbies, and mortgages. We like pizza. We pay taxes. We go to the gym and take out the trash.”
- A worrying pair of updates from the Committee to Protect Journalists: Two unidentified gunmen killed radio reporter Abdullahi Mire Hashi in Somalia six days ago, while in Cameroon, authorities have now detained Michel Biem Tong, the editor of a news website, for a week without charge.
- Profiling CBS anchor Gayle King for The New York Times, Amy Chozick asked King whether media men taken down by #MeToo scandals, including King’s friend and former colleague Charlie Rose, might make a comeback. “Amy, murderers are walking around… People who kill people are walking around. They might not be able to get [their] jobs back, but surely there must be room for some redemption somewhere,” King replied. “I don’t know what the answer is to that, and it might be too soon. Maybe people don’t want to hear that.”
- In the UK, the editor of a supermarket food magazine is stepping down after countering a pitch from a vegan journalist by suggesting “a series on killing vegans, one by one.”
- For CJR, Marie Doezema spoke with journalist turned novelist Omar El Akkad on his dystopian book American War and the dialectic between reporting and fiction-writing. “I’m much more comfortable in the world of fiction than journalism, or any other style of writing or thought, because my defining characteristic as a human being is doubt,” El Akkad told Doezema.
- And as Megyn Kelly continues to negotiate a messy exit from NBC, her character may have been axed from Showtime’s upcoming series about late former Fox Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, The Hollywood Reporter’s Tatiana Siegel reports.