Will Mueller’s investigation live up to fans’ expectations?
Her family wanted a puppy, so Alicia Barnett dreamed they would find one that was smart, steady and a bit mysterious. She hoped their new addition could share a personality – and a name – with the man who has become her rather unlikely idol.
And so, the Barnetts’ new chocolate Lab was christened Mueller – an homage to the stoic special prosecutor appointed to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether members of the Trump campaign played any part.
For devoted Democrats like Barnett, Robert Mueller has become a sort of folk hero since his appointment in May 2017. To them, he represents calm in the face of a storm, quiet in a city of bombast, a symbol of hope that a presidency they view as dishonorable might soon face some type of consequences.
“He gives me reassurance that all is not lost,” says Barnett, who lives with her family and Mueller the puppy in Kansas City, Kansas. “I admire his mystique. I admire that I haven’t heard his voice. He is someone who can sift through all this mess and come up with a rationale that makes sense to everyone.”
The special counsel – a 74-year-old registered Republican, Marine and former director the FBI – has even inspired his own genre of arts and crafts. One can buy Mueller paintings, prayer candles, valentines and ornaments. A necklace, earrings, keychains. A stuffed toy of Mueller in a Superman outfit, cross-stitch patterns, baby onesies – even an illustration of his haircut to hang on the wall.
“Stare at Special Counsel Mueller’s crisp coiffure for three minutes and you will notice a sense of calm come over you,” that artist, Oakland, California-based Wayne Shellabarger, wrote in his online listing for a $10 print. “That’s a haircut you can set your watch to.”
Mueller has become a boogeyman for many of President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters, as the leader of the investigation the president derides as a “witch hunt.” But his fans often speak of him in soaring analogies. Barnett imagines him as a duck’s legs: kicking heroically to keep things afloat but under the water, out of view. Karen Adler, a Placerville, California, crafter who sells a coffee mug with Mueller dressed as a saint and wearing a crown of laurels “for victory,” describes him as “Paul Bunyan-esque,” a man of superhuman labor. Shellabarger thinks of him “almost like Bigfoot,” a mystical creature rarely seen in public.
Mueller has remained completely silent as the ceaseless speculation about his investigation turned him into one of the most famous men in America. He hasn’t given a single interview, and his office does not leak.
When Kim Six posted her cross-stitch tribute to Mueller on her Facebook page, some people told her to keep politics out of crafting. The framed stitching featured the letters “M.A.G.A.” down the side, a reference to Trump’s “Make American Great Again” slogan but with these words substituted: “Mueller Ain’t Going Away.” Her critics assumed she was far-left, but she considers herself a centrist, having voted in the past for moderate Republicans.
Her husband is a “card-carrying Trump fan,” says the resident of California’s Bay Area. They agree to disagree, and she thinks Americans should be able to do the same. To her, Mueller represents a middle ground where facts exist, as opposed to the ideological rants that consume political discourse.
“Let’s get all the facts on the table,” she says, “and let this impartial person come in and tell us what the truth is – not spin, just truth.”
She’s imagined findings so thorough Congress and voters would be forced to act accordingly. But as the investigation has continued on, with 34 people charged and five sentenced to prison, she’s noticed Americans retreating to their corners and rearranging the facts to fit their political position.
She’s losing faith that Mueller’s probe, whenever it does come to an end, will change anything at all.
“How naive I was,” she says. “I have this fear, no matter what happens, either side is going to spin it the way they want to. So I don’t know anymore if he’s the coming savior we had hoped for.”
Carmen Martinez feels doubt, too. She and her business partner in New York City have sold 500 Christmas ornaments and earrings with Mueller’s face. They tend to get a rush of orders after major Mueller news: indictments, sentencings. Martinez saw him as the one person who could lead the country out of chaos with truth, and believed his report would push everyone to turn away from Trumpism.
But Martinez, a Peruvian immigrant, was shocked last year by the administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the Mexico border. She started to wonder: If images of children in cages don’t sway many minds, how could Mueller’s report, just words on paper?
Others remain hopeful: “I feel like we’re in the middle of a book, like a saga,” says Janice Harris, a textile artist in Detroit. “And we’re just waiting for the climax.”
She was never a particularly political person before Trump’s election – much of her work featured kittens or dancers. But she was inspired to immortalize Mueller on handmade makeup bags. She had custom fabric printed with Mueller’s face, stitched it into her pouches and sold around 50.
Wayne Shellabarger has sold two prints of his Mueller haircut illustration. One happy customer wrote that using the print as a meditation aide allowed her to stop taking anti-anxiety medication.
“The world has gone completely insane and topsy-turvy,” Shellabarger says. “Mueller’s hair is one little shining piece of sanity in a sea of madness, so precise and sober and straightforward and without deceit, absolutely by the book, the opposite of everything that’s going on in the world.”
He hung one of the haircut prints in his own living room in Oakland, California – close to the television, so when he watches the news and his heart starts to pound, he can glance up at it.
There is such a thing as fact, it reminds him.
“And that gives me hope,” Shellabarger says, “that since he’s in charge, the world can be normal again.”