We had seen pictures of him waiting to board a plane, leaving a church service and getting into cars over the last two years. Some of us had read a speech or tuned in when he stood before a camera in late May to announce the end of his job as special counsel and, it appears, to bring into sharper focus the scope and limits of his office’s now-completed task: “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” But it wasn’t until Wednesday that most of us beheld the man at length, maintaining eye contact whether he was derided or praised, offering clarification when he could, permitting himself the occasional word of self-deprecation and tirelessly reminding his interlocutors that the revelations they want to highlight or deny are already laid out (or not) in black and white: “I refer you to the report.”
Robert Mueller seems to know that you can’t force-feed a moral realization. You can direct—or try to direct—another person’s attention to a text that draws on the testimony of credible witnesses, but you can’t compel interpretation. You can’t tell someone else what to make of it. In a genuinely free country, the question of what we do with what we know is on us. It can’t be deferred to someone else. In an age when the reigning news cycles are accelerated and largely consumed with reports of who said what about whom and how Democrats or Republicans or famous people are reacting to these reports, watching a thoughtful and unperturbed man with little or nothing to prove take it insistently slow is an education, a reminder of a path we are each free to take at any time. The heat of opinion is always with us, but we can also delay our judgment, decline to react and, if the context requires it, refuse to voice an opinion. Yesterday’s news cycle was a rare reminder of these ancient options.
Robert Mueller seems to know that you can’t force-feed a moral realization. The question of what we do with what we know is on us.
One teachable moment occurred in Mr. Mueller’s responses to Representative Louie Gohmert. Mr. Mueller mostly gazed with a look of equanimity as Mr. Gohmert, voice cracking and face reddening, argued that Mr. Mueller had failed in his obligation to protect the investigation from the political bias of members of his team. With time running out and the gavel coming down on Mr. Gohlmert’s insistence that Mr. Mueller had perpetrated injustice, Mr. Mueller raised his hand and offered what could be understood as a conciliatory word: “I take your question.”
Mr. Gohmert had not asked him a question, and Mr. Mueller’s words only served to dramatize this fact. They also leave open a door for anyone wanting to walk through it: the possibility of further exchanges between morally serious adults who value conversation over accusation. “I take your question” is a courtroom version of a saying one can employ in classrooms and social media feeds: “Could you put your statement in the form of a question?” A question, after all, keeps a serious conversation going. An accusation shuts it down. If the United States itself is a long conversation—sometimes beautiful, sometimes catastrophic—about what human beings owe one another, we do well to commemorate these moments when one man’s animus is meaningfully addressed by another man’s calm.
We do well to commemorate these moments when one man’s animus is meaningfully addressed by another man’s calm.
Civilization, after all, sometimes depends upon reading a sentence a second time to oneself slowly. Even though Mr. Mueller declined to read the words of the report aloud, lest anyone’s animus get unhelpfully aimed at his own person, the investigation that we the people paid for was given a hearing, and attentiveness to detail (citations, page numbers, endnotes) held sway in the American bandwidth for hours. The revolutionary act of literacy is not, generally speaking, televised, but this week was different.
We were reminded that credibility can’t be proven. It can only be recognized and agreed upon. Whom we credit and why is on us, and it is a larger issue than who is ahead in the polls.
This realization can feel awfully fragile when people like NBC’s Chuck Todd speak of “optics,” and an event like Mr. Mueller’s testimony is weighed only in terms of what Democrats or Republicans are likely to do with it. Giving too much energy (or airtime) to this question sidesteps the fact that every American shares custody of every member of the Trump administration and bears responsibility for every policy this president puts into effect. To talk too much of optics is to lose “we, the people” as an actionable concept.
Every American shares custody of every member of the Trump administration and bears responsibility for every policy this president puts into effect.
On the question of the involvement of Vladimir Putin and his oligarch sponsors in the 2016 election (including the organizing of rallies on U.S. soil), another Republican congressman from Texas, Will Hurd, offered Mr. Mueller the opportunity to speak against the suggestion that the Russian government’s disinformation campaign ceased once Mr. Trump came to power. Mr. Mueller’s response was unambiguous: “It wasn’t a single attempt. They’re doing it as we sit here.”
This moment served as a reminder that we get the system we pay for and consent to. We are the oversight that we are looking for. The incarceration of Reality Winner, a U.S. intelligence specialist who leaked the material that brought to light the Russian hacking of a voting equipment vendor in Florida, is as much our responsibility as it is that of anyone holding or running for office. And the weaponized despair of our electorate is an issue that will concern anyone interested in loving the neighbors with whom we walk through grocery stores, sit in traffic or form lines to the voting booth.
Something of the gravity of the situation was captured in the words of Representative Elijah Cummings, the Democrat from Maryland, at the conclusion of the day. After recalling another congressman’s exchange with a woman who, like many Americans, has only begun to hear of the contents of the Mueller report, Mr. Cummings observed that this moment is not about liking or not liking a particular president, “It’s about loving democracy…. I’m begging the American people to pay attention to what is going on…. We have to guard this moment. This is our watch.”
Mr. Cummings also noted that the culture of greed, deceit and self-aggrandizement among those who seek to be entrusted with the public interest, a culture reflected in the Mueller report, is in danger of becoming the new normal. We become what we normalize, and we become what we abide. It is time to feel our own weight and our own responsibility in fostering the possibility of America for ourselves, others and future generations.