BELLINGHAM, Washington — Sorting through the data of the ancient dead — their pots, their knives, the rocks they cooked on — in order to reconstruct how they lived isn't so different from tracking the Mueller investigation, Adrienne Cobb has discovered.
On a recent Friday, the 29-year-old lab assistant in the archaeology department at Western Washington University was trying to do both. She was digitizing data on artifacts found on a farm in Washington state that were about 3,000 years old, while also keeping an eye on Capitol Hill, where the House Judiciary Committee was grilling Matthew Whitaker, then acting attorney general, about his involvement in Robert Mueller’s investigation into the Trump campaign and its links to Russia.
Cobb’s an unlikely candidate for legal sleuthing. She’s a recovering heroin addict with no experience in journalism, and a preference for "Ghost Adventures" over "Reliable Sources" (“I hate cable news,” she says.) She has dyed red hair, rocks Daria-esque glasses, and tends to look at the floor when she isn’t absorbed by a screen.
She spends her free time — and some of her office time, too — tracking every update in Mueller's probe, big or small. She’s part of an online community of digital sleuths, amateur journalists, and statisticians, who commit hours upon hours of their lives to all things Mueller. Some have launched careers out of obsessively tracking the investigation’s twists and turns.
But for Cobb, keeping track of Mueller’s work is about helping others feel less “helpless” in a wilderness of fast-paced, complex news that doesn’t always add up. She calls herself an “aggregator,” which seems simple enough, but it's tough work. She checks Twitter and Reddit three times an hour for new, relevant reporting, and saves links to those articles with the program, Evernote. Meanwhile, news of every White House departure goes in a separate spreadsheet that she’ll refer to in order to update her website, 45Chaos, which notes in granular detail every staffer who’s left; whether and why they quit, resigned, or resigned under pressure (“R-UP”); the length of their tenure, measured in “mooches,” a metric born in Trump’s White House after Anthony Scaramucci's brief stint. (She goes by 10 days, not 11, though there’s a debate over how long he lasted as White House communications director.)
No rest for the weary
On the weekends, she wakes at 4:30 a.m. and never makes plans to leave the house for long — giving her just enough time to scan every article she’s saved to Evernote, for any new revelations. These get boiled down into weekly recaps that she posts every Monday to a Reddit forum called “Keep_Track.” Readers sometimes message her in appreciation or send tips, and her summaries have ballooned along with the news cycle to run as long as 5,000 words. Every Monday, the process starts again.
“I get a lot of people who say, ‘I can't believe that all happened in one week,’” she said. “Or, ‘That feels like it was a month ago, because so much has happened.’ So I think there's value to seeing it all in one spot.”
There’s value, even for the other Mueller obsessives who, like Cobb, have become addicted to tracking the unknown knowns.
Scott Stedman, a 23-year-old tracker, started following Mueller’s probe while he was a political science major at UC Irvine. Within a year of graduation, his obsessive reporting and research has earned him bylines in major outlets and landed him a book deal ("Real News" will be out in April). Stedman says he’s a fan of Cobb’s recaps. “I find them super useful. It’s a testament to how much information there is.”
Some of Cobb’s readers even donate — she makes about $150 a month through her Patreon account, and 76,000 people subscribe to the Reddit forum, where her work is pinned to the top, so any new members can get caught up on the fly.
Call of duty
“There was a New Yorker cartoon that came out this week that I think sums it up pretty well,” says A.G., the host of the popular podcast "Mueller She Wrote," referring to a Julia Suits cartoon. It shows a conspiracist-type standing in a room wallpapered with names of the vast cast of characters involved in the probe, and string trying to connect them all.
For A.G., a federal employee who stays anonymous for fear her podcasts may violate the Hatch Act, the image feels too real. She started recording her talk show out of a feeling of patriotic duty, and has found herself broadcasting to about 150,000 listeners per episode, with a merch shop that includes a $25 dollar V-neck tee that reads “Mueller Maniac.”
Cobb started writing her recaps long before the podcasts and The New Yorker caught up to her, when she saw the May 2017 news that former FBI Director James Comey had been fired. She remembers looking at her phone and thinking that she didn’t understand what was happening, that she didn’t understand her country.
“I guess I definitely want to know everything. I want to understand how the world works, how these different things work,” Cobb said.
That completionist attitude is why she hasn’t made weekend plans since she started. “You may miss something. That sounds psychotic, but you might miss something.”
Cobb got addicted to Mueller after she kicked another addiction. She suffers from scoliosis, and started using heroin after she dropped out of high school in part to ease the pain. She was hooked for almost 10 years.
“I thought she’d either end up dead or in jail,” said her mother, Char Cobb. “I don’t know how she fell into that hole.” But Cobb’s been clean since a reckless-driving charge landed her behind bars in 2015. She got out, got a GED, pulled herself through community college, and transferred to Western Washington University, graduating this past December.
Her favorite archaeology professor there, Sarah Campbell, studies how Native tribes adapted to local resources, and likes to tell her students that archaeology is a process of interpreting what we can never truly know.
“We can’t see the past, can’t see it happening directly in front of us,” Campbell said, while across the room, Cobb entered data. “So we have to reconstruct it. We have to reinterpret it.”
Cobb feels pretty much the same way about getting a sense of what’s going on behind Mueller’s closed door. “There's just been so much noise and nonsense that we just want to know what happened,” she said. “We just want to know the truth.”
Sometimes she thinks the truth won’t come out in her lifetime, and she wonders what will one day become of her work.
“I don't know if anyone will ever look back on it,” she said. “But yeah, it's there.”