He has moved on. Robert S. Mueller III is free. And he looks delighted — or at least at peace.
There he was on Sunday morning strolling out of St. John’s Episcopal Church across from Lafayette Square, across from the White House, with his square jaw framing a smile and his salt-and-pepper hair neat but not perfect. He filed out of church with the other congregants, some of them in baseball caps and cowboy hats, sweatshirts and lumberjack plaid. But in his white shirt and dark pinstriped suit with a discreet tie, Mueller looked like himself — or at least the version that we have gotten to know, a man who would not come to work or come to Jesus without a tie.
It was early on Mueller’s day of rest, and the attorney general had yet to release the principal conclusions from Mueller’s nearly two-year-long Russia investigation. But no matter. The TV pundits and anchors were already on air guessing and prognosticating and vamping until there was actual news to report. Photographers were outside St. John’s, and they were doing their best to frame Mueller with the White House in the background — such irresistible symbolism, after all. But Mueller seemed unwilling to cooperate. He was in proximity of the White House but he remained as disconnected as could be. His gaze was cast away from it. He was looking forward, not back. He was a man walking off into a sunny day, a man patiently waiting for tour buses to pass, for traffic to clear, as he made his way to his car alongside his wife, Ann.
Mueller still has not spoken in public. We have only the pictures to tell us the story of his moods. How are you feeling, Mr. Mueller? You look smashing and so surely, you must feel swell.
For so long, the only pictures of Mueller were those of him looking like the consummate professional, the man in the crisp white shirt, the dark suit and tie. His expression was neutral. He was sharp, but he was also a cipher. He was not a man prone to flashes of sartorial exoticisms. There was nothing to parse other than he looked the part of an FBI man — a government man. That was the image ingrained in our fevered brain — a no-nonsense, imperturbable fella.
He was respected and ballyhooed. Derided and dismissed. Mueller’s look was reassuring mostly because it accurately reflected his demeanor. His clothes didn’t peacock and neither did he. And for this, we were grateful. He was the calm in the storm of leaks and Tweets.
Whether one viewed Mueller as an avenging angel or a relentless witch hunter, his clothes said he was Mueller: righteous seeker of facts.
On Thursday, however, the story took a turn. The public saw a very different Mueller than it had grown accustomed to.
A photographer captured him before sunrise arriving at his office wearing a baseball cap and high-collared, zip-up jacket. A navy tie was barely visible. From the front, Mueller was half hidden by his car’s lowered sun visors. Shot through the windows and looking vaguely like surveillance footage, the image made Mueller appear focused and intense. He also looked tired. (That’s also, perhaps, a bit of emotional transference. Mueller seemed fatigued because we were exhausted — tired of the speculation. But mostly, tired of the waiting.)
That picture was the last the public saw of Mueller before he turned in his report. It was the final image of the investigator investigating. And if there was one startling aspect it was that Mueller looked so regular, so relatable. In all those other photographs, the ones that basically all looked the same except for the color of the tie — red or blue — Mueller came across like a spy novel version of super prosecutor — such a perfect specimen of a law man that if he had been crafted by Hollywood, audiences would have rejected him as too pat.
But in his baseball cap, through the tinted windows of his car, which gave his face an almost grayish, greenish cast, he looked like a man who has been laboring — like someone who has dug up the truth as best as it could be ascertained by a mere human.
He didn’t look tormented or particularly stressed. The facts are not stressful, it’s only the interpretation of them that becomes fraught. He possessed the demeanor of a man whose mind has been taxed, if not his body.
His expression gave no indication of whether Mueller was expecting to be photographed or was surprised by the camera. But by going out in public draped in such informality, he’d made a decision that he was at least accepting of folks possibly getting a peek at the personal weight of the investigation.
The baseball cap picture announced an end — of something. In the cinematic telling of this story, this is the red herring signaling that the case is closed when it’s really just the beginning of the more gripping part of the tale.
By Sunday morning, Mueller was back to his usual public self. He seemed rested. Secure in his facts. Now that he’d delivered his report, he was detached from it. It was in other hands, whether God’s or flawed humans’. He was prepared to merely watch the next part of the story unfold.