The Two Faces of Bob Mueller

By sam.stein@thedailybeast.com (Sam Stein)
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

For Bob Mueller, Thursday was a busy day. The publication of a 448-page report collecting painstaking research into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election brought to an end a nearly two-year-long, deeply significant investigation. But with it came additional work: from sifting through the final product to monitoring the public reaction.

Mueller is not that Mueller. He’s a newscaster at WKRN in Nashville, Tennessee. And while his job hasn’t been nearly as stressful as the former FBI director’s whose report was released on Thursday, it hasn’t been without complications either.

Sharing the name of the man at the center of one of the most controversial episodes in recent political memory has made life a little weird. The politicians Mueller interviews on his show have ribbed him about how long it’s taken to get to the bottom of the Trump mess. Hosts at restaurants where he’s made reservations have offered “a-ha!” glances when he shows up to eat. And his Facebook feed has been a cesspool of loonies and MSNBC moms offering support.

“It would happen whenever I would post a Trump story that he was involved in,” Mueller explained. “Then the vitriol would start from the Trump people. That’s the part that always amazed me—that there were people out there who thought Robert Mueller actually had a Facebook page. But they believed it. And some of the stuff was nasty. ‘Eff you, you should be put of the jail, you’re part of the deep state.’”

Few names are as ubiquitous these days as Bob Mueller. Podcasts have been launched in his honor; Christmas carol lyrics have been reimagined with his investigation in mind; T-shirts touting “Mueller Time” have popped off the racks; Robert De Niro has portrayed him on SNL; and an entire sub-industry of reporters has been tasked with collecting each breadcrumb he leaves behind.

Mueller’s mystique has only grown due to the astonishingly low profile he’s kept. But while the special counsel has stayed quiet, Bob Mueller the newscaster has soldiered on.

There is no confusing the two men. They don’t look alike, aren’t related, and pronounce their last names differently—it’s Moo-ller (like a cow) for Bob from Tennessee. One has become a national hero for liberals. The other isn’t sure his name gets him any perks in a state filled with Trump fans.

“This is Tennessee,” he explains. “I’m not sure how helpful it would be. I got to go to L.A. for it to work.”

But their lives have intersected, and not just because Bob Mueller the newsman has been consumed by the work of Bob Mueller the special counsel.  

“I’m obsessed with it,” he admits. “I’m a junkie. I watch it every night. I probably know more about it than anyone else in the state.”

Courtesy of Bob Mueller

Bob Mueller, the newscaster, is a St. Louis kid who grew up in farm country but didn’t want to work on a farm. So he turned to radio at the age of 15, doing news dispatches for an audience of farmers that surrounded him. The news bug bit and, from there, he continued working in broadcast through college and beyond. Eventually, he found his way to Chattanooga where he was asked to do investigative and documentary work before shifting over to the state capital.

In 2002, he went to Kandahar, Afghanistan, to embed with the 101st Airborne Division. While there, he got a tip that John Walker Lindh, the captured American Taliban fighter, was going to be brought in before being taken back to the United States. Word was that the FBI director—a man named Bob Mueller—was going to show up to help with the transfer.

Sure enough, the tip panned out.

“Here comes this car, it’s a jeep, and he pops out of the car,” Bob Mueller, the newscaster, recalled. “I start asking him questions and he is just steel-nosed. He never looks at me at all. I realize he is not going to talk to me. But we caught eyes and I’m wearing my press credentials and it says Bob Mueller. So I flashed it at him and he gave me a thumbs and just walks on.”

There wasn’t much overlap after that, even as Mueller, the FBI director, stayed at his post. But then, in May 2017, word broke that Mueller was being appointed special counsel to investigate Russia’s electoral interference and Trump’s role in it.

Courtesy of Bob Mueller

By that point, TV’s Mueller had won numerous Emmys and Peabody awards for investigative reporting and was hosting his own Sunday morning political show, This Week with Bob Mueller. There was no doubt that he would be covering the work of the man whose name he shared.

“I remember thinking I have to remember to say his name the correct way,” Mueller said of covering Mueller.

For nearly two years, Mueller, the newscaster, has followed along closely as the investigation has played out. He’s had fun with it, telling groups he’s speaking to that he’s grateful to be there instead of spending his “days prosecuting the Russians before doing the evening newscast.”

And he’s thought about petitioning the president for an interview on the grounds that he may as well sit down with one Bob Mueller.

“I’m friends with a bunch of these Republicans here,” he said. “A lot of them are tight with Trump. Maybe they can help me out,”

But mostly, he’s just covered it as a newscaster does, keeping a distance from the online mobs that have descended on his Facebook page to lodge their complaints at the man they believe is personally harassing Trump. “I didn’t want to get into the protracted stupid arguments,” the other Bob says.

On Thursday, when the Mueller report finally came out, Mueller did what he normally does: he mined it for news. Starting at 9 a.m. he began watching coverage. Then he began reading excerpts before putting out a post unpacking the confusion that laid ahead for WKRN viewers.  

“A lot of Bob Mueller discussion in Nashville today,” it read. “I, Bob Mueller on the left will be reporting about Bob Mueller on the right and his Mueller Report. You will hear the words written by Bob Mueller on the right from the Mueller Report in the voice of Bob Mueller on the left because Bob Mueller on the right is not speaking today.  Got that.”

Mueller the journalist doesn’t give many hints about what he thinks about the report’s  findings that Trump sought the help of the Russians and that he likely obstructed the investigation even if he can’t be legally charged. Mostly, he sees some benefits in the report being released.

Yes, there is some sense of closure for the country. But the vitriol that he gets online may slow down or even stop and he can finally renew his quest to become the nation’s better-known Mueller.

“Exactly,” he said. “I got an opportunity now.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.