Turn in your smartphones! How Mueller kept a lid on Trump-Russia probe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When members of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team investigating Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. election have arrived for work each day, they have placed their mobile phones in a locker outside of their office suite before entering.

Operating in secrecy in a nondescript glass-and-concrete office, the team of prosecutors and investigators since May 2017 has unearthed secrets that have led to bombshell charges against several of President Donald Trump's aides, including his former national security adviser, campaign chairman and personal lawyer, who have pleaded guilty or been convicted by a jury.

To protect those secrets from prying ears, the whole of the office suite in southwest Washington has been designated a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), U.S. spy speak for an area that has restrictions to ensure secret information stays secure.

One common restriction in SCIFs is to keep out smartphones and other electronic devices, which can be turned into covert listening devices or spy cameras. Visitors also have been required to turn these over before entering.

The restrictions, while not surprising given the team was investigating whether a hostile foreign power tried to help Trump win the 2016 election and whether his campaign conspired in the effort, have not been previously reported.

Mueller on Friday sent his report on his investigation to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, setting off a clamor from lawmakers in both Democratic and Republican parties for the document's public release.

Accounts of witnesses interviewed by the special counsel's team, their lawyers and others familiar with the investigation reveal the lengths to which Mueller, a former FBI director, has gone to ensure his high-profile probe safeguarded its secrets.

In a city known for its leaks, Mueller has pulled off a rare feat. He has kept a tight lid on both his office and the evidence he was amassing in his highly sensitive investigation that has cast a cloud over Trump's presidency. And he did it even as Trump relentlessly criticized him, calling the probe a "witch hunt" and the special counsel's team "thugs."

THE ADVISER AND THE DODGE CHARGER

When former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo agreed to an interview with Mueller in May 2018, he was told he would be picked up at the hotel where he was staying in Washington. On the lookout for a black government SUV, Caputo and his lawyer were surprised when an FBI agent drove up in his personal car, a white Dodge Charger.

"Then he drove us 15 blocks to their location and we went in through the garage so that nobody would see," Caputo said in an interview.

Caputo was questioned about former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, Manafort's aide Rick Gates and longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone. When the interview was over, Mueller's team told him they would take him back to his hotel. Caputo said Mueller's team was not happy with what he said next.

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 28: Former FBI director Robert Mueller attends the ceremonial swearing-in of FBI Director James Comey at the FBI Headquarters October 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. Comey was officially sworn in as director of FBI on September 4 to succeed Mueller who had served as director for 12 years. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama applauds outgoing Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) director Robert Mueller (L) in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on June 21, 2013 as he nominates Jim Comey to be the next FBI director. Comey, a deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, would replace Mueller, who is stepping down from the agency he has led since the week before the September 11, 2001 attacks. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller applauds key staff members during a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW HEADSHOT)
391489 03: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a conference as he stands with Justice Department veteran Robert Mueller, left, who he has nominated to head the FBI, and Attorney General John Ashcroft July 5, 2001 the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller stands for the national anthem during a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) reacts to a standing ovation from the audience, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (C) and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (R) during Mueller's farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller gestures during his remarks at a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
FILE PHOTO -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) and FBI Director Robert Mueller speak about possible terrorist threats against the United States, in Washington, May 26, 2004. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller reacts to applause from the audience during his farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and FBI Director Robert Mueller make their way to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (C) delivers remarks at a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Also onstage with Mueller are Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (FROM L), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA Director George Tenet and TSA Administrator John Pistole. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: (L-R) Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton attend the National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol May 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Holder and other members of the Obama administration are being criticized over reports of the Internal Revenue Services' scrutiny of conservative organization's tax exemption requests and the subpoena of two months worth of Associated Press journalists' phone records. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Federal Bureau of Investigation oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington June 13, 2013. Mueller said on Thursday that the U.S. government is doing everything it can to hold confessed leaker Edward Snowden accountable for splashing surveillance secrets across the pages of newspapers worldwide. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (L) welcomes FBI Director Robert Mueller during their meeting in Kiev June 5, 2013. REUTERS/Efrem Lukatsky/Pool (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS)
FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) arrives for the Obama presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington. President Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States. Woman at right is unidentified. REUTERS/Win McNamee-POOL (UNITED STATES)
WASHINGTON, : FBI Director Robert Mueller answers questions before Congress 17 October 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mueller was testifying before the House and Senate Select Intelligence committees' final open hearing investigating events leading up to the September 11, 2001. AFP Photos/Stephen JAFFE (Photo credit should read STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)
(L-R) CIA Director Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director Robert Mueller testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 16, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
399994 02: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller visits the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller (L) stand during the National Anthem alongside Attorney General Eric Holder (R) and Deputy Attorney General James Cole (C) during a farewell ceremony in Mueller's honor at the Department of Justice on August 1, 2013. Mueller is retiring from the FBI after 12-years as Director. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
399994 01: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller greets American forces on the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: FBI Director Robert Mueller, center, talks with Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, talk before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 06: OVERSIGHT HEARING ON COUNTERTERRORISM--Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, before the hearing. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
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"I said I'm meeting a TV crew downstairs so I won't need a ride," Caputo said. "They weren't upset that I was talking to the media, they were disturbed that I was doing it in (front of) the office."

"They were concerned ... that would put their agents and attorneys at risk," Caputo said, adding that he agreed to meet the news crew at a different location nearby.

Former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg said an FBI agent picked him up at the train station to take him to the office.

"You put your phone and any electronic devices and leave them in a compartment out front," Nunberg added. "It was a very plain office."

Nunberg said he went into a conference room with three tables, and prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky, a member of Mueller's team, came in with three FBI agents, one female and two males.

The office's location was not publicly revealed but was discovered by journalists. Still, it has not been widely publicized. Mueller's team has asked media outlets not to publish the exact location for security purposes.

"We are working in a secure location in Southwest DC," Peter Carr, a spokesman for Mueller, has said.

STAYING OUT OF THE NEWS

"In a town where everybody and their mother is trying to get on the front page, Bob Mueller was always trying to stay out of the news," said Mark Corallo, a former Justice Department spokesman. "He wanted to be judged on actions, not press conferences."

Corallo, who was briefly a spokesman for Trump's legal team, was interviewed by Mueller's team in February 2018.

Corallo and other witnesses summoned for interviews by Mueller's team said they were picked up from their lawyers' offices and taken to a secure parking garage in the building in southwest Washington.

The team's office suite was anonymous with no plaque on the door to identify its occupants, said Washington lawyer A. Joseph Jay, who represented a witness he declined to identify.

More than once, Jay recalled, members of Mueller's team expressed their commitment to confidentiality. "They made it clear on a number of occasions, 'We don't leak. You don't have to worry about that with us.'"

"By keeping to their code of silence, they were professionals," Jay said. "They weren't reacting to the spin. They were doing their jobs. They spoke through a number of indictments. They spoke through a number of sentencing memos."

Mueller has remained silent throughout the investigation and his office has issued only one statement. In that statement, issued this past January, spokesman Carr labeled as "not accurate" a BuzzFeed News account describing evidence collected by the special counsel that allegedly showed that Trump had directed his former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about a Moscow real estate deal. BuzzFeed has stood by its story.

Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani, himself a former federal prosecutor, also remarked on Mueller staying out of sight.

"Whenever we talk to them, they say, 'We'll take it to Bob.' He's like the Wizard of Oz," Giuliani said.

Giuliani said although he was suspicious of leaks to the news media, he acknowledged he knew of none for sure from the special counsel's team and that nothing he told Mueller's office was leaked.

"Mueller doesn't talk to us. I don't know why he'd talk to the press," the former New York mayor added.

Joseph Campbell, a former assistant director of the FBI's Criminal Investigative Division who worked at the agency when Mueller headed it, said the special counsel knows how to handle sensitive investigations and ignores the attacks on him.

"He went through 12 years starting with 9/11 of extremely critical and sensitive investigations around the world," said Campbell, referring to the 2001 attacks on the United States. "This is right in his wheelhouse."

"He is not affected by external criticism or speculation," Campbell added.

Robert Litt, former general counsel for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said any leaks about the investigation appeared to have come from witnesses or their lawyers.

"There's nothing he can do about that," Litt said, referring to Mueller.

Litt said Mueller, the 74-year-old former U.S. Marine Corps officer and architect of the modern FBI, probably "cares little about the public perception of him."

"He cares," Litt said, "about doing the job right."

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