Mueller’s Lesson on Integrity

‘I Said What I Meant’
Robert Mueller in 2012 (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Robert Mueller reminded me of nothing so much as the protagonist of Dr. Seuss’s 1940 classic children’s story Horton Hatches the Egg as I watched his televised appearances before two House committees on Wednesday. Horton, of course, is the steadfast elephant who agrees to warm a bird’s nest, keeping his promise despite deluges of rain, snow, ice, and ridicule. He sticks to his word even as he is hunted by riflemen, taken into captivity, brought across the ocean to New York, and sold to the circus. It’s a story about being faithful to one’s word, and, one might say, about responsibility, integrity and accountability—the goals the House Judiciary Committee’s chairman, Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, announced for his inquiry.

If you read Mueller’s voluminous report, there was no obvious news in the hearings, since for the most part Mueller tersely told the committee that he meant what he said in his closing document, which he pledged was investigated with “absolute integrity.”

Or, as Horton the Elephant repeated time and again:

I meant what I said
And I said what I meant…
An elephant’s faithful
One hundred per cent!

Theodor Seuss Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, intended his books to be gentle moral lessons. In a sense, that is what Mueller offered to Congress as he testified about his investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign and the disputed question of whether President Donald Trump obstructed his probe. He offered a model of integrity and non-partisanship that is rarely seen in public life anymore.

If Mueller’s age showed, so did his throwback values of non-partisan public service, honesty and integrity.

Despite much provocation from Republican committee members—an extension of Trump’s effort to destroy Mueller’s reputation for integrity—he refused to shade his testimony to favor the Democrats. There was plenty of opportunity when the Democratic members showed through their questioning of Mueller that in several instances, Trump checked the boxes for the elements of obstruction of justice. Just in case there was any misunderstanding, Mueller told Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat, that he was “not supportive” of his analysis. Similarly, he wanted to avoid suggesting that only a Justice Department legal policy of not indicting a sitting president saved Trump from indictment. After testimony elicited by Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat, possibly muddled that, he corrected his statement at the start of his questioning in the second hearing of the day, before the House Intelligence Committee. “That is not the correct way to say it,” he said.

Mueller went to extremes to avoid zinging Trump with anything that resembled a soundbite; he wouldn’t even read aloud from his report. Who else plays by such rules? Certainly not the Trump-Rudy Giuliani soundbite machine.

Mueller was a stickler about honoring the many restrictions that the law and Justice Department policy put on what little prosecutors can say publicly about pending cases or investigations. Sometimes, that blunted the Democrats’ efforts to build a case against Trump, as when Mueller refused to discuss the indictment of Trump friend Roger Stone even though it is a public record. Often, it frustrated the Republicans’ efforts to delve into the FBI’s use of a “dossier” compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. House Republicans had called for the Justice Department review that is currently under way, which, as Mueller indicated, is why he could not testify about it.

“As I said before and I’ll say again,” Mueller said in a Horton moment, “it’s not my purview as others are investigating what you address.” When Mueller did try to respond with something more than a single sentence, Republican members cut him off, saying they didn’t have the time to wait for an answer.

Much is being made of how halting Mueller was in his testimony, and indeed he sounded all of his seventy-four years and fifty weeks. But if his age showed, so did his throwback values of non-partisan public service, honesty and integrity. 

There was an interesting exchange when he was asked whether he knowingly hired prosecutors on his staff (the bulk of whom came from other Justice Department jobs) who had donated to Democratic political campaigns. “I have been in this business for almost twenty-five years,” he said. “And in those twenty-five years, I have not had occasion once to ask somebody about their political affiliation. It is not done. What I care about is the capability of the individual to do the job.”

That is indeed how federal law-enforcement officials have traditionally operated; the code was that political opinions would never influence prosecutorial decisions. That’s not to say every federal prosecutor lived up to that, but Mueller is among the straight-arrows; he’s held in extremely high esteem in legal circles. But Mueller’s comment—It is not done—sounded very quaint in the halls of such a partisan Congress.

One of the more intelligent lines of questioning came during the afternoon hearing before the House Intelligence Committee. Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat, asked Mueller if the Trump campaign’s welcoming of Russian interference in the 2016 campaign had become the new normal for U.S. elections. 

“I hope this is not the new normal, but I fear it is,” Mueller responded.

Horton in the end keeps to his mission of warming the wayward bird’s egg and when it hatches—as a tiny winged elephant—he’s rewarded for persevering. As E. J. Kahn wrote in a 1960 profile of Dr. Seuss, “In his books, might never makes right, the meek inherit the earth, and pride frequently goeth before a fall.” That’s opposite today’s political ethic, in which might is construed to make right, meekness is for losers, and pride is a pre-requisite for success.

Just what Mueller’s perseverance will yield remains to be seen.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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