By Astead W Herndon and Richard Fausset
The sense of mourning started to take hold over the weekend, after Attorney General William Barr said that Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, had not found coordination between President Trump’s campaign and the Russian government’s election interference in 2016.
Over the nearly two years of the Mueller investigation, a segment of liberals and activists built up fervent hopes that it would bring Mr Trump down. They elevated Mr Mueller, a former FBI director, into an anti-Trump cultural icon, complete with T-shirts, scented candles and holiday-themed songs like “We Wish You a Mueller Christmas.”
For some of them, the report felt like a betrayal. To many others, it was a disappointment.
“I was hoping that the truth would come out,” said Shawn Foster, a 45-year-old music video and television producer in Nashville. Mr Foster had taken to wearing a yellow pin showing the top of the special prosecutor’s head rising like a shark from the sea. Mr Foster said he was wearing the pin on Sunday when Mr Barr’s summary of the report came out.
“It is definitely embarrassing,” he said. “It’s a drag knowing there are people out there who are gloating.”
Jennifer Taub, a Vermont Law School professor who had become known for punchy anti-Trump columns with titles like “Yes, Collusion. Now What?” said, “There are definitely people who thought that Mueller would save us.”
Ms Taub said she remained hopeful that Mr Mueller’s full findings, which have not yet been made public, would somehow contradict the summary given by Mr Barr. But she said she understands that the legal threshold for proving conspiracy is high.
Last week, she posted a picture of herself on Facebook lighting a candle with Mr Mueller’s face on it. “I would hope that people who were in this cult of Mueller would have been self-aware or ironic,” she said on Monday.
Democrats running in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential race have mainly tried to ignore the Russia investigation, focusing instead on policy issues like climate change, universal health care and raising taxes on the wealthy. But that has not stopped certain members of their political base from becoming ultra-fans of Mr Mueller.
Now, as Mr Trump and his supporters claim victory, those who had hoped the Mueller investigation would end the Trump presidency are split between feelings of defiance and devastation.
This group, which differs from more traditional Democratic activists and party operatives, was sure that Mr Mueller would implicate the president in conspiracies to influence the 2016 election and obstruct justice. That belief drove an almost obsessive Mueller fandom among the group, which formed its own internet subculture among the wider anti-Trump base. Mr Mueller was personally revered for being everything the group thought Mr Trump was not, in ideology, integrity and temperament.
A popular podcast called “Mueller, She Wrote,” which is streamed up to 200,000 times a week, calls its Russia-obsessed fans Muellerites. One of the three hosts, a California comedian who goes by A.G. and has a tattoo of Mr Mueller’s silhouette on her arm, said the community was in what could only be described as a collective state of muted shock.
“I’ve had to talk a couple people off the ledge,” she said.
One fan of the podcast, Anne Craig-Tillmond, said she wants to see the full report before she’s “completely deflated.”
“I’ve been emotionally invested from the start, and was I let down by what Barr said? Absolutely,” Ms. Craig-Tillmond said. “Was I let down by what Mueller said? I don’t know what he said.”
The Facebook page of the Robert Mueller Fan Club says on its “About” page, “All hail Robert Mueller — through his work we shall be delivered from this ignorance and evil we suffer.” Barbara Llewellyn, a retired real estate agent from Naperville, Ill., had written “Hallelujah” on the page. But by Monday, she had changed her tune.
“I am very disappointed, because I felt that there were so many public instances where Trump acted guilty and tried to shut down the investigation in various ways,” Ms. Llewellyn said. “And I am realizing that this is just Barr’s interpretation of what the report said. And I’m hoping very quickly that Congress gets ahold of it totally unredacted, and we can go from there.”
Some progressive activists have been calling for Mr Trump’s impeachment almost since he took office, and billionaire Tom Steyer ran television advertisements with that aim across the country. But the sense of profound disappointment that has set in on the left illustrates why Democratic campaigns have been so leery of resting their electoral hopes on Mr Mueller’s investigation and the possibility of impeachment.
Top party strategists have long asked Democratic candidates to ignore the Russia investigation and concentrate their fire on more clear-cut targets like Republican attempts to gut or repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Tyler Law, a former spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said his party’s House candidates in 2018 “didn’t run a single district paid-media campaign on Russia” because extensive research had found that the issue did not “persuade voters or mobilize the base.”
Even Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is running for president in 2020 and has called Mr Trump “corrupt,” has focused her attacks on his business entanglements and failure to release his tax returns, not on the possibility that he coordinated election interference with Russia.
At a campaign stop in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, earlier this year, she said: “By the time we get to 2020, Donald Trump may not be president. In fact, he may not even be a free person.” But it wasn’t the Russia investigation alone that she had in mind, she explained afterward. “Come on, how many investigations are there now?” she said. “It’s no longer just the Mueller investigation, they’re everywhere. And these are serious investigations.”
This reluctance by Democratic candidates has not stopped other figures on the left from capitalizing on the Mueller obsession among the Democratic base. Ed Krassenstein, who runs a prominent anti-Trump social media account with his brother, Brian, announced plans for a children’s book last year depicted Mr Mueller as a superhero — complete with a shirtless, muscular pose. After criticism, the Krassenstein brothers changed the book to a “political parody.”
Ed Krassenstein said in an interview on Monday that he does not think liberals should regret investing their hopes. “Robert Mueller is still an American hero,” he said.
Some Mueller fans say Mr Barr’s announcement over the weekend is far from the final word. “We haven’t been able to see the report,” said Ruth Story, 75, a former head of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter in Gulfport, Miss. “We just have Barr’s word, and we knew from the beginning that Barr was determined that nothing would happen. I’m pretty sure that’s why he is now the attorney general.”
The little yellow Mueller button that Mr Foster wore was created by Henry Owings, an Atlanta-area graphic designer, and his friend Rebecca Dudley, an architect and children’s book author and illustrator in Evanston, Ill. On Monday, Ms. Dudley said that they had cranked out a total of 48,000 of the buttons.
She also said she was not too disappointed by the Barr letter. “I knew there was no way anything could live up to two years of hype,” she said. “I knew nothing was going to come down like a hammer on the White House.”
Ms Dudley said she was most interested now in understanding what she called “the difference between Barr’s summary and Mueller’s report” and what may come of other investigations still in progress, including by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.
She said she was also thinking about making new buttons. These, she said, would be emblazoned with “S.D.N.Y.”