For two years, America scrutinized Robert Mueller almost as closely as Mueller scrutinized Donald Trump. But where Mueller’s investigation produced a clear-eyed view of the 2016 election, America seems to have settled on a deeply confused view of Mueller’s office, the Justice Department’s special counsel. And the misapprehensions surrounding Mueller’s office are not limited to President Trump’s own attacks. Rather, the special counsel’s investigation is profoundly misunderstood not just by Mueller’s enemies but also by his own supporters, especially his supporters in Congress. And, most worrisome of all, our confusion about the special counsel is but a symptom of still deeper confusion about Congress itself—a confusion about Congress’s role as the “first branch” of our constitutional government.

Members of Congress were among the special counsel’s most ardent defenders, from the moment that Mueller was appointed to his office in May 2017 by Acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Two years later, it is almost hard to imagine the bipartisan praise—relief, even—among congressmen and senators applauding Mueller’s appointment. In the House, for example, Mueller’s eventual antagonists among the president’s supporters originally applauded his appointment. Republican Representative Mark Meadows initially celebrated the choice as “a good move on behalf of the administration to do this, and it means that they’re taking things seriously.” (At the end of the special counsel investigation, as Mueller prepared to appear before House committees, Meadows boasted to Fox News’s Laura Ingraham that “Bob Mueller better be prepared . . . he will be cross-examined for the first time and the American people will start to see the flaws in his performance.”)

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