Jurisprudence

What Robert Mueller’s Peculiar Writing Style Tells Us About His Larger Legal Gambit

A 2013 photo of then–FBI Director Robert Mueller
This is a writer taking care to shepherd the reader from sentence to sentence.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

It was recently reported that Robert Mueller is expected to release his final report, perhaps as soon as February. While I can’t predict the content, I can anticipate the prose style: a peculiar fusion of legal convention, economy, and accessibility.

Mueller knows that in an era of polarization and spin, most will receive news from his investigation filtered through their preferred media outlets. At the same time, he still idealistically wants the ear of citizens. His plain style is part of an effort to earn public trust—a quietly effective one, at least for those in the middle of the political spectrum who are motivated enough to click through and read the special counsel documents for themselves.

The documents themselves generally have Mueller’s team of prosecutors listed as authors, but they are all filed by Mueller himself and share a style that one would assume is dictated from the top. What first struck me about Mueller’s style is how he signals confident reserve through concision. I expected the indictments, statements of the offense, and plea agreements that started rolling out more than a year ago to be long and dense and to play defense, in legalese, to every conceivable objection. But they are surprisingly short, many only a page or two. One of the earliest, the criminal information on George Papadopoulos, is just one sentence.

The recent parallel sentencing recommendations for Michael Cohen by the special counsel and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York affirm this pattern: The SDNY’s memorandum clocks in at 38 pages, Mueller’s comes in at seven pages. Less can be more.

There are also telling differences in voice that seem more about style and persona than how the motives of Mueller and the SDNY depart in some significant ways. The SDNY’s prose style is clear and accessible, though often biting, even snarky. See this pointed retort of Cohen’s insistence that he deserved a light sentence:

Now he seeks extraordinary leniency—a sentence of no jail time—based principally on his rose-colored view of the seriousness of the crimes; his claims to a sympathetic personal history; and his provision of certain information to law enforcement. But the crimes committed by Cohen were more serious than his submission allows and were marked by a pattern of deception that permeated his professional life (and was evidently hidden from the friends and family members who wrote on his behalf).

Contrast that with Mueller’s description of the seriousness of Cohen’s offense:

The defendant’s crime was serious. He withheld information material to the investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election being conducted by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and the SCO. The defendant lied to Congress.

No righteousness or resentment. No mid-sentence interruptions. The SDNY’s voice is hard-charging and adversarial, while Mueller’s measured baritone sounds like the narrator of a 1950s black-and-white high school filmstrip.

As a writing teacher, I often encourage students—especially those whose prose is habitually monotone—to experiment with inserting interruptions or parentheticals into their sentences. These elements emulate the shifts in pitch and rhythm we hear in a spoken voice; they also imply a reflective mind at work. This is the style of the SDNY, giving its recommendation attitude and urgency. Legal scholar Richard Posner welcomes a similar approach to bringing more personality and pulse to legal prose. Mueller will have none of it.

The excerpt from Mueller’s sentencing recommendation for Cohen also incorporates brief, declarative sentences, a hallmark of a classic plain style. The SDNY uses several short sentences too, but more often than not as “gotcha” moments or punchlines:

Cohen argues that the emotional toll of his convictions on him and his family, the loss of his law license and other business, and civil tax penalties, ‘amount to an alternative form of punishment,’ which warrants a sentence of time served. They do not.

Mueller never does this—and not just because he appears allergic to snark, but also because his larger stylistic gambit, I think, is to dial back the adversarial nature of typical legal writing.

The SDNY’s default to traditional legal discourse also means that they keep Cohen’s attorneys and the judge in mind as their primary audience. Mueller’s primary audience, in contrast, seems to be the public. Whenever he can, he shifts from agonistic argument to earnest explanation.

Even in the longer documents, such as last February’s 30-plus page indictment of 13 Russian nationals and their multiple shell corporations, we see an effort not just to make a case to the court but to educate the public.

Near the start we read:

US law bans foreign nationals from making certain expenditures or financial disbursements for the purposes of influencing federal elections. US law also bars agents from any foreign entity from engaging in political activities within the United States without first registering with the Attorney General. And US law requires certain foreign nationals seeking entry to the US to obtain a visa by providing truthful and accurate information to the government.

The opening of each subsequent paragraph then orients us with a straight-talking sentence that pushes the narrative forward:

• “Defendant Internet Research Agency LLC is a Russian organization engaged in operations to interfere with elections and political processes.”

• “Beginning as early as 2014 , Defendant organization began operations to interfere with the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential election.”

• “Defendants, posing as US persons and creating false US personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract US audiences.”

• “Certain Defendants travelled to the United States under false pretenses for the purpose of collecting intelligence to inform Defendants’ operations.”

• “Defendant organization had a strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential election.”

When coaching students how to write about technical and scientific matters, I emphasize a set of stylistic strategies that they can use to ease reader comprehension without sacrificing complexity or precision: when possible, use real people rather than abstract phrases for sentence subjects; follow the subject quickly with its verb (defer qualifications and clauses until later in the sentence); and introduce familiar information before new information not just at the macro-level of the document but also at the micro-level of each sentence.

All of this is quietly evident in Mueller’s prose. Moreover, when he needs to tell a complex story, he makes a special effort to explicitly link the end of one sentence to the beginning of the next. See this example from the Russia indictment (emphasis mine):

Defendants, posing as US persons and creating false US personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract US audiences. These groups and pages, which addressed divisive US political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by US activists when, in fact, they were controlled by the Defendants. Defendants also used the stolen identities of real US persons to post on ORGANIZATION-controlled social media accounts. Over time, these social media accounts became …

This is a writer taking care to shepherd the reader from sentence to sentence.

It could be that the Mueller’s plain prose, like his staid Brooks Brothers suits and low-key ties, is simply a reflection of his straitlaced personality. But as George Orwell reminds us, language, power, and politics are enmeshed. A plain style can have political implications. We are soon going to find out just how powerful an entire report written this way will be.