Jurisprudence

Mueller Can’t Get Away With Silence Anymore

The rift between the special counsel and Attorney General William Barr is too obvious to ignore.

Robert Mueller outside of a church.
Special counsel Robert Mueller surfaced to attend church in Washington on March 24.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

For almost all of the story of To Kill a Mockingbird, Boo Radley is nothing more than a metaphor. He’s a mysterious, shadowy figure who can be pressed into service to symbolize any number of literary tropes, but despite the importuning of primary characters who only want Boo to come out of his house, he only does so when he’s ready, and when it’s necessary.

Robert Mueller has been, for more than two years, a metaphor. He’s been the guy whose firing would have signified the pick-up-a-brick moment for millions of Americans, he’s been the caped superhero coming to save us all, and he’s also been the shadowy Clark Kent, toiling away in dorky obscurity, refusing to engage with whatever it is that corrupts even well-meaning public servants who must interact with Donald Trump. For two years, Mueller has defied all public longings and expectations and demands, instead allowing his indictments, his report, and his words on paper to speak for themselves. But like Boo Radley, it’s now time for Robert Mueller to come out.

If Attorney General William Barr’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday demonstrated anything, it was that a deep rupture has yawned open between these two old friends and Washington lifers. It wasn’t just that Barr denigrated Mueller as a “political appointee” or dismissed his March 27 letter as “snitty,” and thus clearly the work of underlings. It wasn’t just that Barr implied that Mueller was either too timid or too incompetent to come to a conclusion on the question of whether Donald Trump had obstructed justice. And it wasn’t just that Barr suggested that since the entire Mueller probe had been proven to be “based on false accusations,” it was illegitimate, which certainly suggests that Mueller devoted two long years to a—you guessed it—witch hunt. Presumably, from now on, if the president decides any legal investigation is “based on false accusations,” he can just go ahead and impede it, a framing that makes a hash of everything Mueller sought to do. When pressed Wednesday on Mueller’s bona fides, Barr snapped that “Bob Mueller is the equivalent of a U.S. Attorney. … His work concluded when he sent his report to the attorney general. At that point, it was my baby.” This is not how you talk about a colleague you respect.

But it’s not just that. At the most basic level, Barr has distorted Mueller’s actual work product, including his polite and confidential and lawyerly letter asking (twice) that Barr correct his inaccurate summary of Mueller’s careful report. It’s a letter that Wired’s Garrett Graff, who wrote a book about Mueller, described thusly: “I’ve read just about every word Bob Mueller has ever said publicly or published. He’s written precisely one letter like the angry one he sent to Barr: It excoriated Scotland for letting the Pan Am 103 bomber out of prison.”

With the rollout of the report and Wednesday’s charged testimony, Barr betrayed Mueller the institutionalist not once but twice, first by warping years of his team’s painstaking investigative work in order to control the media narrative, and then by denigrating Mueller’s March 27 letter as the work of a “snitty” staffer, as opposed to a sober and deliberate bit of caution from the special counsel quietly asking that his work not be appropriated for political ends.

Mueller, a lifelong Republican, has tried—probably harder than any public figure in the Trump ambit—to avoid doing anything that would draw him into the tractor beam of bullying, name-calling, and soapy melodrama that are the final resting place for anyone who involves himself with this president. Where lesser men have attempted to split the difference, compromise at the margins, and to persuade themselves that they were still doing noble work despite allowing Donald Trump to use and exploit them, Mueller simply never engaged, even when the president was attacking him by name. It was an elegant dance, along the invisible seam of public and private, institutionalism and self-protection. This studied restraint rested on Mueller’s unwavering assumption that if he trusted the fact-finding process of the investigation and the machinery of the Justice Department, he might come out the other side intact.

Well, any hope that Barr the institutionalist or Barr the defender of the Justice Department or Barr the believer in truth-seeking processes was going to help Robert Mueller thread this impossibly small needle was vaporized conclusively this week, and now, as my colleague Mark Joseph Stern argues, Robert Mueller is going to have to talk. Efforts to speak through his filings have proved futile in the hands of someone willing to twist and compromise Mueller’s own words until they mean the very opposite of what they originally established. And now that the rift between these two old friends and colleagues has been laid bare, the only person who can do anything about it is the person who has practically made a religion of keeping his head down.

Mueller has a narrowing path along which he might hope to salvage his own words and his own work from the attorney general, who seems to have taken custody of Mueller’s “baby” and then unabashedly attempted to tell us all that the baby was actually an accent lamp all along. Nobody has been more voluble than I have about Mueller’s right and inclination to quietly do the work, then step aside. But if he doesn’t step into the limelight to say out loud what he has written, and proved, and corroborated, and supported (with evidence Barr seems never to even have inspected), his entire effort will only serve as confirmation that those of us who still believe in systems and investigations and truth are all a bunch of chumps.

I don’t envy Robert Mueller. As the one and only character in this endless gothic saga who has managed to remain untarnished by the president’s highly contagious lack of principle, I take no pleasure in arguing that he will now have to engage. His silence and doggedness should have spoken louder than words. But in the hands of someone as bent on politicizing his efforts as William Barr, his silence and doggedness have now been weaponized against him. The special counsel cannot just live amid the heroic metaphors anymore. Like Boo Radley, Mueller needs to come out.