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When the Strong, Silent Type Finally Speaks

Robert Mueller is as helpless as we are, and now his patience has reached its limit. Why does that make him seem like a disappointment?

Today, I watched Special Counsel Robert Mueller announce his resignation and attempt to clarify his office’s report on Russian election interference. I was on the toilet. I’d woken here on the West Coast just 10 minutes before the ex-director of the FBI was to take the podium, so I tapped into a live feed with the same hazy interest I have in anything my phone offers up during the morning routine, from new movie trailers to viral videos. And, as with whatever I stream at that hour, the supposed novelty of the content — in this case, an exceedingly rare public statement from a man on whom quite a few Americans pinned their hopes of a Trump downfall — washed over me with almost no effect. Mueller sounded like an old bureaucrat unused to public speaking, because he is one.

Mueller’s voice, of course, is a matter of public record. It was out there for anyone to hear as soon as curiosity struck. We just didn’t want to hear it, did we. Instead we invested our time and attention in his impassive face, trying to read it for clues. We enjoyed the gravitas of his midcentury G-man air — a strong, silent type being the perfect foil to the whiny, logorrheic Trump. Mueller was the long arm of the law, but he “ran a tight ship,” playing things “close to the vest,” and this fantasy of meticulous control was likewise a balm to citizens ruled by an incompetent nest of vipers. The story of Trump’s White House was overridden by palace intrigue; Mueller’s office would stick to the facts.   

But Mueller’s comments today, delivered in beige tones of no real authority, impress upon us how rare it is for a fact to survive in the open. Aside from the news that he’s resigning, all he had to say was straight from the report itself, conclusions and context that have already been twisted to every end: Russia systematically meddled in our democracy, and even if Trump had helped them do so or obstructed Mueller’s subsequent investigation — crimes of which the special counsel has explicitly not cleared him — the Department of Justice prohibits charges against a sitting president.

We’ve known this for weeks, but the waters are now so muddied that Mueller had to beg us to recall what he actually wrote. The takeaway for many was: Read the damn report.  

Vocalizing this frustration, Mueller shed the final piece of the stoically masculine image that gained our confidence in the first place. He’s as helpless as we are, and his patience, too, has reached its limit. Does that make him a disappointment? Only compared to the character we wished him to be. But no one was going to fill that role. He rose to it by his quietude, a canvas for our wild expectations. Then, in an instant, he painted these over. He stepped to a microphone and said, I want to go home.

Now he will be silent again, and the silence will not mean he is biding his time, building a case, closing in on Trump. It will signify the retreat. It will be wordlessness of a man with nothing more to reveal.