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“It’s Such a Hyped-Up Moment”: How the Mueller Press Corps Is Bracing for the Big One

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"It’s Such a Hyped-Up Moment": How the Mueller Press Corps Is Bracing for the Big One

In the annals of Robert Mueller journalism, stories heralding the always seemingly imminent conclusion of the special counsel’s now nearly two-year-old Russia-collusion probe have become their very own genre, and punch line. “Sooner or later, Robert S. Mueller III will end his investigation . . . This will be good news for some lucky reporters because it will mean that a few of them will finally be right,” The Washington Post ’s Paul Farhi wrote in December.

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Joking aside, and despite the knowledge that they’ve been wrong before, journalists covering Mueller do sense that the highly anticipated denouement is now, at last, right around the corner. “It definitely does seem like it’s gonna be in the coming weeks,” said someone at a major national news outlet who has been covering the investigation. The main press room at the Department of Justice is usually a full house these days, with six workspaces reserved for The New York Times, the Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, Bloomberg, and Reuters, plus five closet-size rooms for the major television networks: NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox News, and CNN. (In another recent development, there are now satellite trucks posted up outside the building every day.) A secondary press room houses reporters from places like BuzzFeed, Politico, the Daily Beast, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times.

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Everyone is basically staking out the scene, keeping their eyes peeled for a sudden flurry of activity or dash of commotion, or any sign of anything at all that might suggest something is afoot. Reporters weigh whether or not to pursue unrelated assignments or to reschedule days off—I heard an anecdote about one reporter nearly canceling a long-planned ski vacation after CNN reported on February 20 that Attorney General William Barr was preparing to announce the completion of the special-counsel investigation “as early as next week.” One of the most plugged-in reporters on the Mueller beat, the Times ’s Michael Schmidt, is on book leave, but he plans to rush right back to work if the investigation wraps before his scheduled return. Everyone “wants to be prepared for any sudden drop of bombshell information,” said one of my sources. “On the one hand, we want it to come, so it can finally be over with. On the other hand, it’s gonna set off this mad scramble to figure out what’s in it, which we’re all dreading.”

News organizations have been on heightened alert for the past month or so. At the Post, there was a big planning session toward the end of February in which reporters and editors came up with a bunch of stories to pop on game day. Then, people spent Presidents’ Day weekend putting articles and B-roll together. The CNN report inspired a second big planning session, which generated additional story ideas and even more articles and B-roll. The Post now has about half a dozen stories that are more or less fully pre-written and cued up to roll out in the days after the report finally lands. (The Post declined to comment.) Apparently, every false alarm about when the report might drop inspires new content, which then gets warehoused.

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Other big newspapers, like the Times and the Journal, already have stories in the oven, too, just like they would for, say, Election Night—not to mention all manner of sidebars, graphics, interactives, and other bells and whistles, like a software program that can annotate the full report for readers, if it were to become public. There’s lots of meetings, lots of nagging check-ins from editors, and, above all, lots of pressure. “I’m having trouble reveling in the notion that I’m covering history, because I just feel stress,” another reporter from a big national news outlet told me. “It definitely feels like we’re sort of hitting the breaking point, but then each week passes, and it’s just, like, what the hell!”

When journalists aren’t busy getting a jump on their eventual coverage of the report, they spend their time reading tea leaves, like the fact that two more attorneys in recent days have announced they are stepping away from Mueller’s team. Or that the grand jury hasn’t met in weeks. What does it mean that Mueller hasn’t moved Rick Gates to the sentencing phase yet? Or that when he brought charges against Roger Stone, U.S. attorneys outside of the special counsel’s office were immediately working on the case? Plus, why is Rod Rosenstein still there?

The other big question involves how everything will go down after Mueller submits his report to Attorney General Barr. Will the D.O.J. notify reporters as soon as that happens, or maybe even give them a pre-emptive heads-up? Or will they be sent scrambling? Will the report stay under wraps until Barr notifies Congress? When Barr does notify Congress, will he give them the full report, or just a summary? If just a summary, how detailed will it be?

“It feels like readers are anxious for a big moment,” said Amy Fiscus, national-security editor at the Times, “but we’re trying to be prepared for any eventuality, whether it’s a thousand-page report, or whether it’s two sentences that set off another two years’ worth of investigations.”

Journalists are acutely aware that, as a narrative matter, the Mueller report could be like watching the screen suddenly go black in the final moments of The Sopranos. That’s what makes the story so tricky. After two years of intrigue and teasers and juicy revelations, a steady drip-drip of charges and arrests and plea deals, the public’s expectations for closure couldn’t be higher. But only Mueller knows what Mueller knows. What happens if the contents of his report—if people even get to read it—don’t live up to the swirling drama that has sold so many newspaper subscriptions over the past two years?

The unique challenge here,” said Wall Street Journal editor in chief Matt Murray, “is that it’s such a hyped-up moment, and everyone brings one expectation or another to what’s coming, that you have to not overexpect. It will be an important journalistic moment because of the hype, and it will be an opportunity for us all to really help readers get the full context and understanding of whatever comes out. If there turns out to be big revelations that nobody has caught wind of or seen, and that are damaging, that’s one thing. If it turns out that we already know everything, then it’s a different kind of report. It’s hard to prejudge.”

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