Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III walks past the White House after attending St. John's Episcopal Church on Sunday. (Cliff Owen/AP)
Columnist

Harper Lee understood, as she wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird,” that many people would have trouble understanding her hero, Atticus Finch. Others talk; he acts. Others equivocate; he stands firm. Others sell out and call it victory; he suffers defeat without complaint because he would rather lose the world than lose his dignity and integrity.

Though such people are rare indeed, a society cannot manage without them. And so Lee has Miss Maudie Atkinson, the shrewdest of the Maycomb neighbors, explain Atticus to his own offspring. “There are some men in this world who are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us,” she says. “Your father’s one of them.”

Robert Swan Mueller III is one, too — and not in the safe pages of fiction but in the hot kitchen of real life. For nearly two years as special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, Mueller has endured a nearly constant barrage of insults and character assassination from a Twittering President Trump and his bootlicking propagandists.

There is only one explanation for the president’s relentless attacks. He thought that Mueller was likely to throw the book at him. And there are only two explanations for that expectation. Either Trump knew he deserved it, or Trump assumed Mueller would sink to his own level of mendacity and self-serving to pervert justice. The idea that a public servant, indeed, a team of public servants, would quietly discharge a mission with honor was utterly beyond Trump’s fathoming.

The country had an unpleasant job that needed doing. The president of United States had surrounded himself with people who lied about their contacts with highly placed Russians. He had fired the director of the FBI, James B. Comey, and within hours he personally assured the Russian ambassador that he did so to shut down an inquiry into these lies. It was possible all this could be explained as the product of incompetence and naivete, because Trump had been utterly unprepared for the presidency and was surrounded by gangsters and clowns. But it was also possible something intentional was going on.

Someone had to sort out the facts. The task would be exhausting, it would be thankless, and it would likely end in some degree of vilification.

Mueller’s report has not yet been published, and there will be more to say about it when more of it has been seen. Perhaps parts of it will remain secret for years, if not decades. But we can say that Mueller ran the tightest ship Washington has seen in a very long time, leakproof and diligent. And it appears he was more than fair to the president and the first family. According to Attorney General William P. Barr, Mueller alleged no collusion with the Russians — even though Donald Trump Jr. replied to an overt offer of Russian campaign assistance with a chipper “I love it.”

That seems more than fair. Maybe the president will apologize now for his many months of attacks on the silent Mueller. I’m sorry, Trump might say, I guess you weren’t on a witch hunt after all. I guess you didn’t hire a bunch of partisan hacks, as I repeatedly charged. Thank you for doing your job with honesty and integrity.

Or maybe not.

From the beginning, Mueller’s honor was something the president would never understand, much less appreciate. Though contemporaries, the two men occupy different worlds and always have. As young men, Mueller volunteered for service in Vietnam while Trump conjured a case of “bone spurs.” Mueller compiled a stellar academic record; Trump sent his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to threaten any school that might try to make his record public. Mueller devoted his career to his country; Trump was always and only out for himself.

The sad irony is that Trump will now wrap himself in Mueller’s credibility to defend against further investigations. And while that might not be legally sufficient, the armor will probably serve well politically. After all, Trump said there was no collusion, period. If Mueller indeed found no collusion, the result will be a credibility infusion for a president who sorely needs one as he heads into his reelection campaign.

An honest person might be troubled by the incongruity, but we’re not talking about an honest person. We’re talking about President Trump. He appears content to go on disparaging the Mueller investigation, while at the same time claiming “total exoneration” by Mueller’s conclusions. Attack Mueller, embrace Mueller — it’s all the same to a man whose self-absorption turns everyone into instruments of his own fleeting impulses. Or tries to, anyway.

So be it. What Mueller has done is more important than that.

He was called under difficult circumstances to drill straight down to a bedrock of facts and tell us, without bias, without slant, what he found. This was his job — our job — and it has been unpleasant indeed.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.