In the fall of 2017, Clare Winter, a single mother of two in Charlottesville, thought she had done everything an outraged citizen was supposed to do. She'd marched in protests, called her congressman's office, joined Indivisible meetups. But she also felt like she was getting "absolutely nowhere." Violent white-supremacist rallies had rocked her city, and her family was splintering into pro- and anti-Trump factions. She was looking for something — anything — to give her hope. Winter is an atheist but was raised Catholic, and that fall, she says, "all I could think was, 'I wish I could pray to someone.' "
Then one day she saw an image of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, with his lantern jaw and no-nonsense gray hair. “I just thought, you know, someone needs to put a halo around that guy,” she says. So she did. She worked with an artist friend to design a votive-style prayer candle depicting Mueller as a Catholic saint, with a shimmering silver halo and a suit and tie. She thought people might find the candles funny or comforting; she expected to sell or give away a hundred, mostly as Christmas gifts. To date, she says, she has sold more than 9,000. Retail price: $16.
Where enthusiasm goes, merchandise must follow. Over the two-year course of the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, a Mueller-industrial complex developed, with not only multiple devotional prayer candles, but also T-shirts, enamel pins, mugs and hats bearing the special counsel’s likeness sold in stores and on sites such as Etsy. While most of these were fairly tongue-in-cheek (a Kickstarter for a different Mueller prayer candle also included a “pee tape” prayer candle and raised more than $32,000), almost all held up Mueller as some manner of savior. When Stephen Colbert had the actress Patricia Arquette on his show, he displayed a picture of her Mueller devotional candle — one of Winter’s — to which she replied, “It might take that to save us.”
Images of saints invariably portray them as calm and beatific. Consider the depictions of Saint Sebastian looking fondly skyward as his body is riddled with arrows. And in this sense, the seemingly imperturbable Mueller made for an ideal religious icon. His sphinxlike cool made him the perfect vessel for his fans’ anxieties about the state of the country and, arguably, the perfect nemesis to President Trump — a view seemingly shared by Trump himself, who raged against Mueller frequently on Twitter.
Then on March 22, Mueller turned in his report to Attorney General William Barr, who swiftly issued a letter stating that it had cleared the president and his campaign of conspiring with Russia. When the full (though redacted) report was released a few weeks later, it painted a considerably darker picture than Barr’s letter. The president, the report alleged, had repeatedly asked subordinates to take actions to thwart the special counsel’s investigation, such as firing Mueller, but they had either refused to carry out his wishes or simply ignored him.
To Trump, the entire episode amounted to clear vindication: After the full report was released, he put out a “Game of Thrones”-inspired tweet gloating that it was “Game Over” for “haters and the radical left.” Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, pressed for further hearings and investigations.
But what of the Mueller faithful? How do they feel about what has transpired? And now that their hero’s work is done, is it time to snuff the candles and put them away?
Not quite. “We’re still keeping them on the shelves, and we’re still keeping them lit,” says Bridgid Blackburn, owner of Cargo Inc., a shop in Portland, Ore., that has sold more than 4,500 of Winter’s votives after a Facebook post advertising them went viral. There was a slowdown right after the Barr letter, she says, but sales later picked up.
If anyone faced a quandary over what to do with their Mueller worship gear, it was the host of “Mueller She Wrote,” a comedy-news podcast with more than a million monthly downloads. She goes by A.G. because, as a federal employee, she wants to avoid any appearance of violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits government staffers from partisan action in their official capacities. (No less than nine Trump White House officials have violated it.) A.G. has a trove of homemade Mueller devotional items submitted by fans, including Russia investigation trading cards and a tank top with his likeness. “I probably have 10 packages I still haven’t opened,” she says. She also has a Mueller rosary, a gift from her road manager. (She tours for the podcast and as a stand-up comic.)
Winter says her customers — like “Mueller She Wrote” listeners — saw the special counsel as a beacon of hope when hope was in short supply. “People wanted to have faith [that] Mueller’s record and integrity might bring us back to a sense of normalcy,” she says. “This nightmare would be over.” And if it seems odd for the American left to lionize a Republican former FBI director, well, “it does speak to a certain level of desperation,” admits author and political commentator Molly Jong-Fast, who owns a different Mueller candle. “I think we all went crazy from this election.”
We don’t know how Mueller himself feels about all this idolatry. Special counsel spokesman Peter Carr declined to comment. But David Priess, a former CIA officer who briefed Mueller daily for more than a year in the mid-2000s, finds the whole quasi-religious imagery strange. “Nothing is more out of contrast with the man himself or the way he operates than the cult of celebrity that such merchandise reflects,” he says. Still, he sympathized with people who venerated Mueller as a symbol of the resilience of the rule of law: “You need a ray of hope, and if that ray of hope is ‘At least we have a man like Bob Mueller investigating,’ I can understand.”
For some, that faith hasn’t diminished now that the investigation is over. A.G. sees the report as vindication: “Sometimes, you question your own sanity. You ask, ‘Is my confirmation bias so strong that I’m making it all up in my own head?’ And then … you realize you were right all along, and it’s still sad.” Far from suspending her podcast, she is prepping a new series parsing the report in 40-page chunks in order to spread its message. People might not read it, she says, “but they might listen to it if there are some jokes.”
Still, even Mueller’s most ardent fans must now contemplate a future without him. One possibility is for his devotees to focus on their own power as organizers and activists — or as A.G. puts it, “We’re the Muellers we’re looking for.”
For her part, Winter is taking a break from making Mueller candles — she’s exhausted — but she has a vision for other candles. “The idea of having a product where people can light a match and imagine a way of making our country better,” she says, “that’s a product I’d like to sell.”
Blackburn, the Portland shop owner, already has a replacement in mind for the Mueller candles once they run out. She recently started stocking Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez prayer candles. She says the first batch sold out “immediately.”
Samuel Ashworth is a writer in Washington.