We Already Know What’s Coming in Robert Mueller’s Trump Investigation: He Did It For Roger Goodell and The NFL
Don’t get too excited. The FBI Director has been hired by an autocrat, again, to do one thing and one thing only.
“[He] has managed, with the help of a press that loves nothing more than a man who loves to exercise authority, to use his own demonstrated ineptitude to enhance his own brand.”
Those words, though perfectly apt, do not describe Donald Trump nor his embattled presidency as it faces investigation from special counsel to the Justice Department, Robert S Mueller III.
No, they are from a 2015 article describing Roger Goodell in the wake of Mueller’s last high profile independent investigation — into allegations the NFL covered up a botched inquiry. The similarities are striking, and do not end there. It serves as a cautionary tale as to what we can expect as so many Americans place their hopes in a smoking gun from a legendary ‘G-Man’.
In an effort to stem the deepening crisis around Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, the Deputy Attorney General (the same who wrote the bogus memo firing FBI Director James Comey) appointed a special counsel to oversee the investigation. That special counsel was Robert Mueller, the legendary former FBI director admired and appointed by both sides of the aisle, and a figure the New York Times said possessed an “unblemished reputation”.
The rest of the media have been falling into line with that assessment. Decorated war hero; above partisan politics; frank and fearless; unwavering integrity; inexhaustible work ethic. He took the reins of the FBI mere days before 9/11, and then famously stood up to George W Bush as he tried to implement an illegal domestic surveillance program. Mueller’s biographer published a glowing profile in Politico yesterday about how Trump could expect no quarter given from “America’s straightest arrow — a respected, nonpartisan and fiercely apolitical public servant whose only lifetime motivation has been the search for justice.”
But the picture I’d like to paint of Robert Mueller is different. Yes, he is a hardworking servant of the law, and a good one. However, we don’t have to sit and wonder about his approach to this task before him, or the outcome — we’ve already run this experiment and the results should please no-one other than the Trump administration.
“It was horrific. It shocked the conscience. He knocked her out with one punch. She was out for three minutes. He dragged her out like a limp noodle. He hit her so hard. It was unbelievable. We gave her ice packs for her head.”
That’s the shocking description the NFL received the day after a horrifying assault by Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice, on his then-fiancée. The NFL suspended Rice for two games (for perspective, players have been suspended for entire seasons for smoking marijuana).
Ray Rice was a hero in Baltimore, and as a ‘franchise’ player, to the NFL. The season before his assault, he signed a $35 million 5-year contract with the Ravens. Baltimore was rewarded with a Super Bowl championship that year, led by Rice as the star player and leading rusher. His heroics in the famous “4th and 29” play, which gave Baltimore a crucial win late in that season, still fill the highlight reel as one of the greatest plays in Ravens history. For the NFL as a business, it’s the stuff of wet dreams:
News of his arrest was the stuff of NFL nightmares. You may well be thinking to yourself, “which of the many NFL domestic violence incidents I’ve heard of does this case refer to?”. Fair enough, there are many. This is likely to be the one you remember best— it’s the disturbing grainy footage of an unconscious woman being dragged by the heels out of a casino elevator by the remorseless man who just knocked her out.
That video, leaked to the world by TMZ (warning: the footage linked here is difficult to watch), rightly sparked outrage at the leniency of Rice’s punishment — outrage that reached fever pitch when an AP story said a law-enforcement source had sent the video to the NFL, and had proof they received it. The NFL had been denying anyone there had ever seen it.
Enter Robert S Mueller III.
Mueller, the ‘independent investigator’, was employed by the accused party (the NFL) to “conduct an independent inquiry”. Obviously, it was Goodell’s intention that Mueller prove their innocence (or rather lack of proof of guilt). The report, unsurprisingly, did just that. As he’d been commissioned to do, Mueller found no evidence of wrongdoing on the NFL’s part.
Mueller worked for the law firm WilmerHale, who were engaged to conduct the Ray Rice inquiry. To say WilmerHale had ‘deep connections’ to the case would be a massive understatement. WilmerHale does business with the NFL, and shortly before the inquiry helped negotiate a Sunday Ticket deal with DirectTV worth billions. The president of the Ravens, who appears as a leading character throughout Mueller’s report, was a partner at the firm for 31 years. Their other alumni include the in-house counsel for the NFL, the league’s finance counsel, and other team executives — as this WilmerHale article boasts, the firm is a great pathway to becoming a football executive. The mere illusion of independence was not even present in this inquiry before it even began.
Other clients of WilmerHale? Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner and known-Russian-agent-cum-Trump-campaign-manager Paul Manafort.
The ‘independent inquiry’ was overseen by the owners of the Giants and the Steelers, who predictably sung from Goodell’s song sheet all the way — preemptively defending him and the NFL before the outcome of the inquiry. Likewise, Mueller in the Russia inquiry is answerable to the Deputy Attorney General, who takes his orders from Trump directly (and has done so obligingly so far).
To say the NFL is improper is not to say it is incompetent. That, they left to James Buckley.
The NFL hire a bunch of ex-cops to basically perform the role of private investigator when scandals break. They divide the territory regionally, and James Buckley, an ex-Paterson police force turned PI, had New Jersey.
In Mueller’s detailed report, every effort of the NFL’s investigation into the Rice incident is outlined in full. Buckley’s investigation seems to have consisted of confirming that the casino elevator (shock, horror!) did have a camera in it, and then googling ‘Ray Rice’ for articles on the internet.
“The League’s investigation of the Rice incident between March and May consisted of Buckley monitoring developments in the ongoing criminal proceeding against Rice by reviewing public news articles. He did not perform any additional investigative steps, nor was he instructed by the League to seek additional information.” — Mueller’s Report
Meanwhile, there were two other parallel investigations going on — competently — the lawyers hired by Ray Rice, and the Ravens’ own investigators. Both had no trouble turning up the casino footage.
The NFL, remember, is a $9 billion corporation. They can afford better investigatory sleuth-hounds than James Buckley, but they didn’t want to. They wanted something better: plausible deniability.
All of this is to say: there is an impressive amount of evidence for you and I, dear discerning reader, to conclude that the NFL knowingly ignored evidence of Rice’s shocking violent crime in order to hand down a soft penalty, and then took efforts to cover their tracks about it.
Robert Mueller is the chief of narrow remits. His report concluded that there was no ‘smoking gun’.
He was asked to find “whether anyone at the League had received or seen the in-elevator video prior to its public release on September 8; and what other evidence was obtained by, provided to, or available to the League in the course of its investigation”.
“We have found no evidence that anyone at the League received or viewed the in-elevator video prior to its public release. Likewise, we have found no evidence of a woman at the League acknowledging receipt of that video in a voicemail message left on April 9, 2014"
As to the second question which could have opened an avenue to exposing the NFL’s attempts to ensure plausible deniability, Mueller did have some recommendations, buried in nuance, for how the investigation could have been improved — that conveniently aligned with giving the Commissioner more power and discretion.
As the NFL knew all along, nuance can be trumped by the headlines they knew would follow the report’s key finding:
Goodell’s job was safe — and WilmerHale could safely be relied upon in the future to help ensure a favorable outcome for their client.
What Mueller did not answer was what the public needed to know: whether there was a deliberate strategy from the NFL to maintain plausible deniability and protect their assets, including Rice, or whether their behavior was governed by a shocking and implausible level of incompetence.
In either case, the NFL was culpable — either of a deliberate cover up of having seen the video, or of nefariously passing judgment knowing the video existed and what it contained — but the findings of Mueller’s report allow them to spin the good news story of being ‘cleared of every accusation’.
It sends a shudder down my spine to recall the NFL/Ray Rice debacle in the light of Mueller’s entree into the Trump investigation.
There was no impropriety from Mueller, he simply did what he was hired to do — and did it well. He will be thorough, he will be honest, he will leave no stone unturned in investigating his remit. But that remit is set by and is at the behest of those he is investigating, who need him to find no evidence of wrongdoing. Just like it was for the NFL.
There was no smoking gun for them — but a boatload of evidence enough to conclude culpability on the NFL’s part, as the opposite was simply implausible.
If — as I think is most likely — this investigation uncovers enough evidence of direct contact and collusion between Trump campaign staff and Russian agents to make it simply implausible that Trump himself did not know, but no incontrovertible proof of Trump giving direct orders to do so, then the headlines will read “Mueller Investigation Finds ‘No Evidence’ of Trump Guilt” and not “Trump ‘Must Reasonably Have Known’ Of Russian Interference”.
The fact remains, the NFL appointed Robert Mueller from a law firm that it already did business with, with the express purpose of demonstrating no-one in its administration had knowledge of a certain act. He did just that, and it saved Roger Goodell’s job. The Trump administration has appointed Mueller from a law firm they already do business with, to find exactly the same thing. Why should we expect any different result this time?
Let us hope that these words, from the Managing Editor of Deadspin’s response at the time to Mueller’s report into Goodell and the NFL, don’t ring true again. The stakes this time are so much higher:
“[Mueller’s report] concludes that the authors of a fiasco need to be given more authority and more discretion to prevent it from happening again. All of this is depressing, as if the fact that all the right-thinking people are going to treat it as holy writ.”