Washington • Call him Mr. No Comment.
As special counsel Robert Mueller continues his now-expanding probe into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and whether Donald Trump’s team had any part in it, a Utahn is playing a key role in handling the onslaught of media inquiries.
And Peter Carr’s job is pretty much to say he can’t say anything.
Carr, a Bountiful native who previously worked as press secretary for Sen. Orrin Hatch, serves as Mueller’s spokesman, fielding requests from The Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN and a slew of media outlets repeatedly asking for reaction from the special counsel on the latest revelation in the ongoing investigation.
The standard reply: “No comment.”
In Washington, Carr may be the most quoted person saying absolutely nothing. And that’s by design.
“You have to be an absolute stone wall in that position,” says Ian McCaleb, who worked as a producer for Fox News covering the Justice Department before serving as a spokesman for the department in the Bush and Obama administrations. “You can’t give anything away. There are just too many things at stake.”
That’s not to say that Carr — who, true to form, declined to comment for this story — sits idly by the phone just to say nothing. He is deeply involved in the operations of the special counsel and prepped for what may be coming. His job is not to be caught off guard, to be ready for whatever questions journalists will throw his way.
“People wrongly assume that the people who hold those spokes-positions for special counsels, that they spend their time no-commenting all day and they go home. It’s not like that at all,” says McCaleb. “They have to be absolutely studied-up on everything.”
A Politico story last year detailed how Mueller keeps a low profile in Washington and noted that journalists here consider him one of the tougher subjects to crack. Same goes for Carr.
“In recent weeks,” the story explained, “Carr has declined to comment on everything from the scope and progress of Mueller’s investigation to the reason why his office — relocated this summer from a publicly disclosed site near FBI headquarters — is now secret.”
Carr has taken hits for his silence.
His image has been a meme on social media — “Just a picture of Peter Carr holding his tongue,” wrote one contributor on Reddit — and some conservative news sites have labeled him a Democratic operative. (He’s a registered Republican, for the record, and, for a short stint in 2017, was appointed by the Trump administration as the acting spokesman for the Justice Department.)
Even so, Carr, like Mueller, has attempted to steer clear of the political fray that’s engulfed Washington as the president stares at a probe that has already ensnarled former top aides and even his personal attorney. Trump has taken the opposite approach.
“Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big Crooked Hillary supporters, and Zero Republicans? Another Dem recently added … does anyone think this is fair? And yet, there is NO COLLUSION!” Trump tweeted in March, one of several postings attacking Mueller or the Russia investigation.
Fact checkers have found the criticism of Mueller’s team as Democrats to be somewhat off base; some attorneys on the case have contributed money to Democratic candidates, but some have given no federal donations. Mueller himself is a Republican.
Carr, doing his duty, hasn’t commented on that line of attack.
The gatekeeper for one of the most intriguing political scandals in U.S. history didn’t seek out this role, but those who know him well say he’s a perfect fit.
A tough gig
In 2007, another political storm was brewing.
The name of a covert CIA agent, Valerie Plame, was leaked to a news columnist in what she believed was retribution for her husband’s op-ed excoriating President George W. Bush for saying that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had sought uranium materials from Africa when the CIA found he hadn’t.
Then-U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Patrick Fitzgerald was assigned as special counsel to investigate, and his spokesman, Randall Samborn, soon found himself facing a barrage of news media requests. The case dominated the news, and Samborn was inundated.
A decade later, Carr is in a similar spot, though Samborn says it really isn’t a close analogy.
“He’s dealing with much, much more,” says Samborn, who spent 20 years working for the Justice Department. “Comparing his situation and mine — my situation was tame.”
Not only has the number of news outlets expanded, but also the fact that the president is so focused on what Mueller is up to makes the investigation even higher profile.
Carr, Samborn says, is essentially handcuffed in not being able to confirm or deny information that might be reported about the investigation outside of what’s public in court documents. While any good spokesperson would want to correct mistakes or bad information, Carr can’t do that without running into a slippery slope of also confirming accurate news.
Carr’s job also entails taking information gleaned from journalists to Mueller’s team of lawyers and investigators, including angles that they may not have known about or allegations that may take them in new directions.
“Even though it seems to be a simple process to simply decline comment,” Samborn says, “[Carr] plays a much more critical and important role of being on the receiving end of the information that flows into him.”
Carr may not be an attorney preparing charging documents or interviewing witnesses, but he is the linchpin, Samborn says, between the “inner sanctum” of Mueller’s probe and the outside world.
Meanwhile, Trump and his allies continue to criticize the investigation as a “witch hunt” and are attempting to discredit Mueller and those who work for him.
On Friday, Trump tweeted that there was “no collusion” between his team and Russia, and it was “all made up by this den of thieves and lowlifes.”
Carr, of course, didn’t respond.
“You have to have a very thick skin,” Samborn says. “To some degree, it’s easier for [Carr’s] colleagues to ignore the noise on the outside; he gets bombarded by it head-on.”
It’s a gig Carr may have not envisioned growing up in Davis County.
The almost civil engineer
Carr was a star student at Woods Cross High School, where his history teacher was also his soccer coach. He was his school’s Sterling Scholar award winner for general scholarship and was one of 15 state finalists for the prize.
He served a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Dominican Republic and then headed to LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, where he sang in the men’s choir.
While some of Carr’s fellow students took internships with Congress through BYU, Carr opted to intern for the Utah Legislature, where he felt he could dive more deeply into his role than answering phones for a senator or giving Capitol tours, recalls one of his professors, Troy Smith.
He was an A student, Smith says. (Carr later graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in public relations.)
“Peter was a solid student intellectually, and he also had excellent people skills,” Smith says. “He connected very quickly with the students in the class and developed some pretty good friendships with them.”
Carr wasn’t the sort to seek the limelight, Smith says, but he was someone “you knew you could rely on.”
In 1998, he married Kuuipo Naluai, who was the senior class president at Woods Cross when Carr served as student body president.
After graduating from BYU, Carr spent a year at the public relations firm Richter7 in Salt Lake City before joining Hatch’s team as a press assistant. It was the first time the office had such a position.
“His work ethic was fabulous,” says Patricia Knight, who was then Hatch’s chief of staff.
Even as the Carrs built their family — they now have four kids — he would come in early and stay late, Knight recalls, and he had a good rapport with reporters.
“In my experience — which was just short of 15 years — he was one of the best, if not the best, press staffers,” she adds, calling Carr an even-keeled “consummate professional.”
While working for Hatch, Carr earned his master’s degree in political communication at George Mason University.
He was a “first-rate guy. No nonsense, very serious, strong student,” recalls one of his professors, Frank Sesno, now the director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University.
“I didn’t know him personally and haven’t seen him lately,” Sesno says, “but I’ve noted his presence and job and am not surprised at his success.”
Carr jumped to the Justice Department in 2007.
Blain Rethmeier, who served as a spokesman for the Senate Judiciary Committee and also worked in the Justice Department in the Bush administration, says Carr was one of the best colleagues to have.
“Peter absolutely appreciates the role a free press plays in covering the government’s prosecution and defense in various cases,” says Rethmeier, now the managing director of Ditto Public Relations.
“And while he’s limited in a lot of the on-the-record comments, most often he does his best to provide factual details that are relevant to any case he’s working on. He’s a straight shooter and somebody who embodies the spirit of working for the Department of Justice.”
Ironically, Carr wasn’t initially looking for a role in dealing with the news media. At BYU, he was leaning toward civil engineering, he told BYU Magazine in 2008. That is until he saw the college course options.
“I came to public relations and told myself, ‘That sounds like you,’” Carr told the alumni magazine.
Carr, who has tweeted only 27 times in six years, all of it related to his Justice Department work, may not be the most outspoken spokesman, but he’s nice about it.
“The greatest quality Peter brings to this role is his absolute, unfailing politeness,” Samborn says. “He is perhaps among the most polite people you will ever meet.”
Even if he’s telling you nothing.