Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in 2017 (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Columnist

The most difficult and the most important jobs in America are one and the same, and they belong to Robert Swan Mueller III.

Washington is obsessed with the question of when the job will be finished. But that matters little alongside how the job is done. The special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election — and such matters as arise from that investigation — is walking a tightrope over an abyss, buffeted by partisan and cynical winds from all directions. The country needs him to deliver, at the end of his perilous crossing, an account of his findings that is fair-minded, transparent, sober and unassailable.

This is no time to rush.

Mueller’s task is to bolster the good faith of the 60 to 70 percent of Americans who think with their own brains rather than outsourcing their thinking to right- or left-wing propagandists. But don’t kid yourselves. Just because this tenuous majority is willing to think does not mean its components all think the same way. Some of them will be disappointed with anything short of an indictment of the president or a road map to impeachment. Others will be wary of anything less than a complete exoneration of President Trump.

Success for Mueller will be measured by his ability to speak credibly to both ends of that spectrum and to everyone in between. Every American who has not yet been seduced into one political cult or another must be able to look at his completed work and see that no punches were pulled, nor any low blows landed. Mistakes or missteps by his investigators must be acknowledged and explained. Mueller must account for all the doors he opened, as well as any he leaves shut. Though not everyone will agree with every conclusion or action, we must have sufficient truthful information to understand and evaluate them all.

The list of people who have made Mueller’s job more difficult is long and spans all parties. The right-wing conspiracy machine is the loudest and most obvious offender, led by the tweeting Trump. But the fodder for those supposed conspiracies was planted and fertilized by the likes of Hillary and Bill Clinton, whose inflated sense of themselves spawned years of rule-skirting and buck-raking; by former attorney general Loretta Lynch, who foolishly answered her airplane door when the aforementioned former president came knocking; by the bumbling Clouseaus atop the FBI, whose protests of impartiality ring hollow when they appear to be up to their elbows in politics.

Truth be told, Mueller made his own task more difficult by recruiting lawyers to assist him without sufficient concern for their political ties. Admittedly, it’s difficult to practice law at high levels in the United States without compiling a record of political donations. Yet when so many of those donations went to Democrats, we can’t blame Republicans for casting a gimlet eye.

Nor is it fair to expect Republicans to ignore the whiplash of hypocrisy that preceded Mueller’s appointment. On Oct. 19, 2016, during the final debate of the campaign, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton attacked Trump for refusing to pledge that he would respect the vote totals. “That is not the way our democracy works,” she insisted. “We’ve been around for 240 years. We’ve had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them, and that is what must be expected of anyone standing on a debate stage.”

Then came November, and a giant Emily Litella moment for stunned Democrats: Never mind.

So much depends on Robert Mueller.

The United States has been the luckiest of nations, in that we get the servants we need when we need them most. We got George Washington when we needed a hero willing to relinquish power after gaining and wielding it. We got Abraham Lincoln when we needed a cunning poet to steel the nation to sacrifice and make that sacrifice meaningful. When the wrecked world needed order, we got Harry Truman with his stoutly ordered mind.

What we need now, desperately, is an honest broker.

Mueller is, like all human beings, capable of mistakes. But he is also capable of selfless public service that can be admired from many points on the political spectrum. Indeed, a headline on the Fox News website on the day he was named special counsel read: “Robert Mueller appointment to lead Russia probe wins bipartisan praise.”

As the capstone of his career, Mueller faces a task with no room for mistakes. When the time comes, when he’s good and ready, he must give his country a full accounting of his work and his findings without fear or favor. For even in the storm of deception and dishonesty, truth has a distinctive ring. And given the chance, America’s anxious and unsettled — but patriotic — majority will answer its call.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.