Robert Mueller’s spokesman is a man of mystery

Peter Carr and Robert Mueller (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Courtesy of Peter Carr, AP)

The trim man with salt-and-pepper hair and broad, kind features can occasionally be seen in court proceedings connected to special counsel Robert Mueller, sitting in the back of courtrooms taking notes in an extra-large government ledger.

But Peter Carr, who speaks for Mueller, almost never says a thing.

As the spokesman for the special counsel’s office, Carr is one of the only official sources of information on the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, a probe that has riveted the public — and the president. Yet Mueller’s office has been notoriously tight-lipped, and the special counsel has only two modes of public communication: statements in court, which sometimes yield blockbuster stories, and comments from Carr that almost always tell us nothing.

Carr is personable and helpful with small logistical questions, but never forthcoming on the big ones.

Last August, Carr was in attendance as federal prosecutors made their case against President Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort in Virginia. He exchanged pleasantries and revealed he was reading a “scintillating” Tony Hillerman mystery novel, but declined to comment when asked about the day’s legal drama.

Carr was willing to confirm a few details of his personal history. He came from Utah to Washington, D.C., where he got his start working as a spokesperson for Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from his home state. Carr has been at the Justice Department since 2007, and he has regularly handled sensitive topics and high-profile investigations. When asked which case was his favorite, Carr got a far-off look in his eye and responded that he could not say.  

These real-life encounters with Carr are rare for reporters. Far more common are his emails, which nearly always include a four-word refrain: “We’ll decline to comment.”

While the real details of the Mueller probe have largely remained a mystery, a cottage industry has emerged with experts both legitimate and self-appointed offering forecasts, analysis and even purported insider info. An assortment of grifters, pundits and partisans have been projecting their hopes and expectations onto the Mueller probe, resulting in false predictions of the president’s imminent demise and the widespread conventional wisdom that a final report on the investigation will be made public, even though this isn’t required by any regulations.

In this fevered climate, Carr has become a persistent source of fascination among reporters on the Trump/Russia beat, who parse his every word and have even noticed hints of humor peeking through his information blockade. But ultimately, Carr is just as much of a cypher as his boss, and any attempt to analyze him or glean greater meaning from his work yields few concrete answers.

One thing is certain, every one of Carr’s rare utterances grabs the media’s attention.

Last month, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow expressed amazement when Carr was quoted in a Dec. 3 article by Yahoo News’ chief investigative correspondent Mike Isikoff. The article confirmed that a single memo written by Mueller would be released, and to Maddow’s astonishment, Isikoff’s article included a three-word quote from Carr that the document “will be public.”

“I have to tell you, part of the Isikoff scoop here is that he actually got the spokesman for the special counsel’s office to say a word, to make a comment of any kind,” Maddow said. “He actually told Isikoff a thing. I can hear the angels singing. Wow!“

Maddow explained her shock by contrasting Carr’s terse contribution to the story with his normal modus operandi.

“His job is to sit silently while wearing a sign draped loosely around his face, which covers his mouth, and the sign says, ‘No comment’ in calligraphy. That’s all he does, ‘No comment’ on everything,” Maddow said of Carr on her show that night.

David Corn, Mother Jones’ Washington bureau chief and co-author with Isikoff of a book on Trump’s Russian connections, told Yahoo News he sees Carr firmly in the longstanding Washington tradition of the government “spokesman who can’t speak.”

“Peter is the representative of one of the most watched government projects in years, and I have no doubt that he gets to experience or witness a lot of interesting things that any normal person would love to talk about,” Corn said. “Yet I really have not seen him provide anything but the most barebones information.”

As another example of this, Corn cited the press shop at the CIA, which came up with the notorious “Glomar response,”  declaring it would “neither confirm nor deny” an inquiry. That non-answer was perfected in a wild case involving a sunken Soviet sub and a cache of state secrets.

Carr’s chorus of “No comment” makes it hard to tell whether he’s covering for an operation of equally dramatic importance or for more routine matters. As Maddow’s reaction to the story last month shows, the rare moments where Carr provides a sliver of information are treated as major stories in themselves.

Natasha Bertrand, a staff writer with the Atlantic who focuses on the Mueller probe, said this has “warped our perspective of dealing with the special counsel’s office.”

“On the off chance that you actually get something that’s not just: ‘We decline to comment, thanks,’ it’s like a bombshell. It’s like an earthquake,” Bertrand said.

Indeed, reporters fondly remember the few instances they managed to pry something — anything —loose from Carr.

Corn, Mother Jones’ D.C. bureau chief, recalled an instance last month where his magazine wrote a story based on Carr’s single-sentence assurance that the Mueller probe would be “unaffected” by the government shutdown.

“That was actually considered a scoop,” Corn told Yahoo.

But the emails in which Carr declines to comment aren’t mindless and identical. Many include some personal flourishes from Carr. More often than not, Carr will indicate that he’s read a reporter’s inquiry. If some small talk was included in the email, he’ll typically respond.

Bertrand recalled a few examples where she was chastised by Carr.

“Sometimes, I’ll write to him and I’ll have a somewhat stupid question, and he’ll write back and be like, ‘The answer to that question is in this one word or this email sent that I sent to you three weeks ago,’” Bertrand said.

“He inserts these little kind of digs, but he does it in good faith, and he does it with a good sense of humor. It’s not vicious,” she added.

Corn pointed to a story by him that Mother Jones published last week, in which he tried to ask Carr about the rampant speculation over whether Mueller will produce a final report. In his email to Carr, Corn specified that a report isn’t necessarily required by the rules setting up the special counsel’s office.

“He sent me back a response … that said, ‘I direct you to the regulations.’ My question to him was, ‘I see the regulations say this,” Corn recounted with an exasperated laugh.  

But Carr has answered inquiries about the special counsel’s conduct that do not implicate investigative matters. This has led him to weigh in on some of the lighter stories that have surfaced around the Mueller probe.

For instance, when a photo emerged that appeared to show Mueller waiting at a D.C. airport as Donald Trump Jr. chatted on a phone behind him, Carr cheekily confirmed the special counsel was in the picture.

“That is him, waiting to board a flight,” Carr told the Washington Post. “If it’s accurate that the other person in the photo was Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Mueller was not aware of him and had no interaction with him.”

When a right-wing agitator sought to smear Mueller with an implausible allegation of misconduct, Carr told media outlets that the special counsel’s office had referred the matter to the FBI. Carr also weighed in when someone launched a fake Twitter account masquerading as Mueller.

Whether he’s offering an answer or his usual “No comment,” Carr is fast, answering emails almost instantaneously.

“I think the longest I’ve ever had to wait for a response from him was like 10 minutes,” Bertrand said. “It’s usually like two to four minutes. He’s really good about that. … It’s weird that we say he’s good about that, because he’s not giving us any information.”

Corn concurred.

“I would salute him for the rapidity of the responses, much more responsive in that regard than many other government offices in Washington,” Corn said of Carr, adding, “That said, it may be easier to respond when all you have to say is: ‘We can’t comment.'”

When asked if he would participate in this story, the special counsel’s spokesman replied with an email in which his signature mix of sarcasm and secrecy was on full display.

“Appreciate your reaching out, but I’ll decline to be interviewed for the piece. Below are screen shots of my LinkedIn profile, which should cover my work experience and education,” Carr wrote.  

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