WASHINGTON — By the standards of Robert S. Mueller III, the government’s most prominent ascetic, Wednesday’s nearly 10 -minute statement in a seventh-floor conference room of the Justice Department was a circus. There were dozens of cameras, harsh lighting and live cut-ins on network television.
For the first time in his two-year job as special counsel — and fittingly, on the day he announced his retirement — Mr. Mueller tried explaining himself . His performance revealed just how far Mr. Mueller was willing to stray from his highly practiced restraint .?
“Bob Mueller would have wanted to write a letter of resignation that was three sentences long, stepping down,” said Anne Milgram, the former New Jersey attorney general and a law professor at New York University, where she works with Andrew Weissmann, one of Mr. Mueller’s top prosecutors. “He’s kind of a 1950s guy in a 2019 world, where everyone wants him on TV, everyone wants him before the cameras in Congress.”?
Mr. Mueller made clear on Wednesday how reluctant he was to repeat his performance.
“I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak to you in this manner,” he said, a reference to calls from Democrats in Congress for his testimony. “I am making that decision myself. No one has told me whether I can or should testify or speak further about this matter.”
For what amounted to his retirement ceremony, Mr. Mueller wore his unofficial uniform: a pinstripe suit, a white shirt with a soft collar and a navy patterned tie, tilted slightly. The outfit became a part of Mr. Mueller’s lore as special counsel. Andrew D. Goldstein, a prosecutor on the team, told a friend that Mr. Mueller asked for white shirts and “no flashy suits,” the same kind of sartorial regimen he enforced when he was the director at the F.B.I.
Like so much else in his investigation, Mr. Mueller’s brief appearance was carefully choreographed and notice of it was tightly held. Word did not leak out after the White House and Mr. Barr heard about it on Tuesday night, and reporters in the Justice Department’s press room were surprised when the news hit their inboxes at 9:30 a.m.
In keeping with his past silence, Mr. Mueller alluded to the idea that his indictments were “speaking” ones that offered extensive detail. Mr. Mueller encouraged the public on Wednesday to return to those texts and not to expect more from him.
“The report is my testimony,” he said.
Mr. Mueller often stood apart from his own investigation, a recluse even to those involved in it. During the day he could be found alone in his master office, but he met with more of his staff around 5 p.m. every day in a larger conference room. He would occasionally slip into the windowless conference rooms where witnesses were interviewed, to say hello or sit quietly in a corner.
The style of Wednesday’s statement mimicked Mr. Mueller’s approach even in private. Glenn Kirschner, who in the 1990s worked alongside Mr. Mueller as a homicide prosecutor in Washington, said it reminded him of how Mr. Mueller controlled 15-minute daily staff meetings.
“It was factual, it was brief,” Mr. Kirschner said. “There’s an economy of language.”
What Mr. Mueller will do with his liberation from the special counsel’s work is unclear. If he returns to private law practice in Washington at the firm WilmerHale, where he worked out of a 12th-floor corner office, he would take on a similar role defending corporate clients, said Jamie S. Gorelick, a partner there. Mr. Mueller, who liked to eat lunch at a Greek restaurant on K Street, would often advise younger lawyers at his firm.
After Mr. Mueller left the Justice Department on Wednesday, he returned to the same rented, bare office space that he used as special counsel, near tourists pouring into the Museum of the Bible, two blocks south of the National Mall. Several members of Mr. Mueller’s team met him there for a formal goodbye. The offices are considered a “sensitive compartmented information facility,” secure and safe for classified material and therefore without personal electronics, which must be deposited in small lockers.
It was a suitable final moment in the most secretive government investigation in a generation. The team would not have been allowed to carry in personal cellphones to film or photograph it.
Katie Benner contributed reporting.