Robert Mueller and the Battle for Truth

We must be able to trust that public servants can do their jobs regardless of their political leanings.

Mueller speaking at a desk.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

During the five hours of special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, America heard two shocking stories. First, this country’s primary foreign enemy during the seven decades since the Second World War actively interfered in the 2016 presidential election with the dual aims of electing the Republican candidate and sowing distrust in democracy. Second, the beneficiary of Russian efforts, Donald Trump, welcomed those efforts, though he did not, technically, conspire in them. And then he actively obstructed the investigation into Russian election interference by firing the FBI director, attempting to fire Mueller, trying to tamper with key witnesses, lying to the public and to members of his own administration, and seeking to induce others (notably White House counsel Don McGahn) to lie on his behalf.

If you are a Democrat or a well-informed independent, your reaction to the preceding paragraph is likely to be: “Ho-hum. We already knew that. It’s all in Mueller’s report.”

If you are a committed Republican, odds are you tuned out the Democrats’ painstaking recitations of the facts Mueller found, and you may not have noticed that the Republicans never even tried to dispute those facts. Instead, you may have latched on to a different scandal altogether: the alleged witch hunt of the president. Republican committee members repeatedly argued that the Russia investigation was somehow a plot by Democrats and the deep state, and that lifelong Republican Bob Mueller and his team of career prosecutors and FBI agents were actually a bunch of partisan plants whose bias permits their results to be dismissed without further examination.

Republicans parroted Trump’s endlessly repeated complaint that some of Mueller’s team were Democrats or at least had made political donations to Democratic candidates. The implication being that no Democratic lawyer or agent or analyst can fairly investigate a Republican and thus that Mueller’s investigation was fatally biased.

As Mueller (rather feebly) tried to explain, this logic misconceives the basic ethos of federal law enforcement, which is that the Justice Department does not inquire about the political affiliations of its employees. It presumes, in the absence of affirmative contrary evidence, that regardless of political leaning or affiliation, prosecutors and agents will pursue the facts and the law wherever they may lead. The department has a long, honorable, and zealously guarded tradition of impartiality that supports this presumption.

The Republican line of attack on Mueller implies an absurd rule going forward—that only Republicans or unaffiliated independents can investigate Republicans, and only Democrats or unaffiliated independents can investigate Democrats. Adoption of such a rule would fracture the foundation of the department’s professional code and its external reputation. More importantly, even accepting the basic premise of the Republican members’ critique is to abandon belief in the capacity of government legal professionals to find facts objectively and administer the law fairly.

Herein lies the terrifying danger of our present national circumstances. No democracy can function without generally accepted mechanisms for determining the truth. By “truth” I don’t mean anything as grand as divine revelation or the meaning of life or the origins of the universe. A democracy composed of citizens who disagree profoundly on those existential questions can rub along just fine. But a democracy cannot long survive if neither its citizens nor their elected representatives have any shared means of deciding basic facts about events in the world.

The common feature of all totalitarian movements and dictatorial states is destruction of institutions that might discover or disseminate facts inconvenient to the party, or the regime, or the supreme leader. That is the literary lesson of Orwell’s 1984.

In the end the Party would announce that two and two made five, and you would have to believe it. … Not merely the validity of experience, but the very existence of external reality, was tacitly denied by their philosophy. The heresy of heresies was common sense.

This is also the learned lesson of the fascism crushed, at least for a time, by the Second World War, and of the communist empires of Russia and China.

As Hannah Arendt said:

The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction … and the distinction between true and false … no longer exist.

Arendt also wrote, “One of the greatest advantages of the totalitarian elites of the twenties and thirties was to turn any statement of fact into a question of motive.” Consider that for a moment, and then go back and watch the tape of the Republican cross-examinations of Robert Mueller. They never disputed the facts his team discovered. The entire display was an attack on motive.

Some of the Republican assault was transparently ridiculous, notably the suggestion that Bob Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, Jim Comey, the FBI, and the Trump Justice Department have been witting or unwitting tools of the Clintons for the past two years. Some of it, like Devin Nunes’ claim that the Russians colluded with the Democrats to injure Donald Trump’s candidacy, is contradicted by the Trump administration’s own intelligence agencies.

For the Republicans, neither common sense—Orwell’s antidote to totalitarianism—nor the conclusions of government agencies headed by the president’s own appointees mattered. Mueller’s facts are damaging to Donald Trump. Mueller’s facts are objectively unassailable. Therefore, the integrity of Mueller and all those who labored with him or who support his fundamental conclusions—the intelligence community, the FBI, and the prosecutors of the Justice Department—had to be impugned.

The most frightening trend of the current era is the accelerating loss of public faith in institutions that were formerly arbiters of the facts upon which democratic governance depends. Events beginning at least with the Vietnam War and Watergate drained public confidence in the candor of elected officials. Where once there were media voices accepted across the political spectrum as reliable and authoritative, conscious profit-seeking choices by some outlets and relentless denigration of the responsible press by figures like Trump have produced a siloed industry in which no source is generally trusted. The sometimes coordinated assaults of the social conservative and industrialist wings of the Republican Party on science and higher education have eroded the authority of scientists, educators, and universities. Truth increasingly depends on tribe.

Nonetheless, even in this age of wounded authority, Republicans could be relied upon to affirm the integrity and reliability of law enforcement and the national security services. The lesson of the Mueller hearing is that this last pillar of the Republican catechism is now abandoned. Not only are Republican members of Congress now demonstrably uninterested in discovering facts for themselves, but no person, regardless of character, political affiliation, or unimpeachable record of service, and no institution, regardless of its probity or centrality to American law, will be spared should they presume to find facts inconvenient to the Leader and his Party. The potential damage to the administration of justice is incalculable.

At some point, Donald Trump and all his needy, bullying, vulgar mendacity will vacate the public stage. Whether the American republic can survive him will depend largely on whether it can somehow rebuild faith in its public servants and institutions—with a commitment across parties to finding the truth and acting on it unafraid.