An Observation on the Mueller Testimony

On documents and the degree to which they speak for themselves.

There has been one key element of Robert Mueller’s approach to his whole investigation that I have found more than vexing. It is his insistence that texts speak for themselves. It has been his almost literal mantra about the report, and it is a a statement he applied to a letter that he wrote concerning AG Barr’s treatment of said report.

Now, on the one hand, there is a degree to which one should be able to expect a text to speak for itself. But, there are a lot of examples in which texts clearly are not expected to speak for themselves in all ways, and more importantly, there are key moment in which texts are not expected to solely speak for themselves.

I live in a world of texts and words. They have dominated my professional existence. A text is called upon to speak for itself in moments of quiet contemplation when the reader and the text are involved in the interchange. This is certainly true. But texts consumed en masse almost never are asked to solely speak for themselves, and, indeed, many texts are explicitly written for an audience in which clearly it will not be simply speaking for itself.

Some key examples:

-There are oral arguments before the Supreme Court of the United States because texts are not asked to fully speak for themselves.

-Court proceedings in general are examples of texts (such as briefs, laws, transcripts of depositions, other written testimony, etc.) are not expected to speak for themselves.

-Doctoral dissertation defenses are clear examples wherein if the doctoral student told her committee, “the text speaks for itself” then said students would not pass the defense.

-When a professor uses a book or article that they have written, they do not walk into class, drop the book on the table, and walk out shouting “the text speaks for itself, so I am getting a coffee” on the way out the door.

-A key reason for a blog comment section is that blog posts aren’t always able to speak for themselves.

To that last two points: I have taught enough and have written enough for public consumption to know, without any doubt whatsoever, that no matter how clear I think I am being, there is always someone (and often a lot of someones) for whom further clarity could be provided.

The entire act of literacy and film criticism is predicated on the notion that texts frequently require interpretation. Indeed, the very fact that we have to use the word “interpretation” to any discussion of any text indicates that texts often cannot speak for themselves, at least if one means that the text’s speech is clear and understood equally by all.

For that matter, the whole notion of education, from K-12 through graduate school, is that texts need people to speak for them. If books alone were the gateways to understanding, then we could save a lot of money and time on education. (I would note, too, that churches could close as well–just read your holy text of choice and move on).

Indeed, if there is ever a moment in which a text should not be expected to speak for itself is when the author is in the room with you. Only the author can explain the choices made. Only the author has a clue about why they made the choices they made (and yes, authors are fallible and their memories and egos may get in the may of how they answer such questions).

Still, the notion that Mueller could not elaborate on his report, and that the report spoke for itself, was a disservice to the country. It was especially a disservice because he knows full well that most Americans (indeed, more members of the committees he was testifying before) did not read the text in question. If a main goal of a report is to, well, report then the author might find the need to help the report get adequately reported. His unwillingness to even read sections of the report himself undercut the purpose of the document.

I appreciate his dedication to fairness and his clear desire not to be partisan (which is ironic, given the attacks he suffered on that count). I further appreciate his calm demeanor in the face of some serious scorn heaped on him from Trump and his supporters over the last several years.

But the notion that he was duty-bound to elaborate on nothing, to explain nothing, and to simply continually assert that the text speaks for itself, was heavily misguided in my opinion. I think, too, it flies in the face of what we know about texts and how we treat them, let alone the purpose of the report itself.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. James Joyner says:

    Agreed all around.

    I much prefer text to video or oral presentation in almost all instances, simply because I’m trained to absorb and engage with information in that manner. But I’m a decided outlier. And even I prefer engaging speech to bland speech.

  2. Jay L Gischer says:

    I think the country finds itself in a situation that is entirely new. A presidential campaign had a candidate and a campaign manager both with very strong business interests and ties to an adversarial foreign power. They took meetings with agents of said foreign power. There’s no precedent for this, and we’re off all the charts.

    Both Comey and Mueller have tried to navigate an ethical course through it, and their wake leaves something to be desired for many of us. I think Mueller probably did better than Comey, whom I have a fair bit of sympathy for, even though I think he messed up.

  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Still, the notion that Mueller could not elaborate on his report, and that the report spoke for itself, was a disservice to the country.

    I think the complexity of the language used required translation, which we did not get.
    The whole idea that the POTUS could not be charged and thus could not defend himself against any charges, and so Mueller didn’t make a determination…is a complex idea. If the last two years of Trump has taught us anything it is that a huge portion of the American electorate is just plain stupid…you just cannot support this president unless you are dumb (or, I suppose, in on the corruption). The Trumpies aren’t going to be able to process things like this, which leaves it open for propogandists like Trump to say,

    “See, no obstruction”

    when that is the opposite of what is being said.
    So what was needed was Mueller annotating the report. A Mueller Report for Dummies, or more appropriately, A Mueller Report for Trumpies. This is what the report says, this is what that means in 3rd grade level English.
    We didn’t get that.

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  4. It is worth noting that Mueller is also guided by ethical rules. These rules generally preclude prosecutors and investigators from making claims that go outside the scope of the indictments they have issued and the reports they have prepared.

    If people were expecting Mueller to appear before Congress and label Trump guilty of some offense or another, they were expecting something that he could not have ethically delivered.

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  5. @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Nothing prevents anyone from taking the text of the Mueller report and simplfying it for public consumption.

    That, however, was not Mueller’s job and it was unreasonable for anyone to expect him to do it.

    Additionally, he could only answer the questions asked of him.

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  6. restless says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Nothing prevents anyone from taking the text of the Mueller report and simplfying it for public consumption.

    Well, there is this

    from insider

    which is still very long.

    Perhaps a graphic novel will do the trick, though it won’t be out until next year

    from cnn

  7. @Doug Mataconis:

    If people were expecting Mueller to appear before Congress and label Trump guilty of some offense or another, they were expecting something that he could not have ethically delivered

    I was not expecting any of that.

    My point is that explication of the text was not an unreasonable request. Moreover, the text does not speak for itself (especially if no one reads it).

    I reject the notion that it was unreasonable to expect him to speak to his findings.

  8. Steven Taylor says:

    @restless: There is also The Report, a podcast from Lawfare

  9. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Additionally, he could only answer the questions asked of him.

    Well, that was my point…he should have been guided into explaining these things by the questioners.
    The other issue is collusion/conspiracy. People like Drew and Paul can’t understand all the nuances of that. This hearing should have been about spoon feeding the idiots, and explaining the corruption that took place.

  10. DrDaveT says:

    When Mueller says “the text speaks for itself”, what I hear is “the text makes clear everything I am willing to make clear”. Not quite the same thing, and consistent with his testimony.

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  11. Steven Taylor says:

    @DrDaveT: Given the way you and I have been going back and forth over our own texts on the DC thread, I would think your would appreciate my point in this post. 🙂

  12. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven Taylor:

    Given the way you and I have been going back and forth over our own texts on the DC thread, I would think you would appreciate my point in this post. 🙂

    Indeed! That thought had occurred to me.

    (Not to mention the road rash induced by the phrase “minority rule” last week… 🙂 )

  13. SKI says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Nothing prevents anyone from taking the text of the Mueller report and simplfying it for public consumption.

    That, however, was not Mueller’s job and it was unreasonable for anyone to expect him to do it.

    Strongly disagree. to the extent his writing was unclear or capable of misinterpretation, it is absolutely his responsibility to correct such errors in communication. Further, we know he agrees that it is because he did, on at least one occasion, make such a correction/clarification.

    I understand the dilemma he is in. He tried to communicate within the guidelines that are written/designed for dealing with someone he could have indicted in a scenario where he can’t (or doesn’t believe he can). But he absolutely can, and often did, provide clarification. Claiming the text speaks for itself is a dodge.

  14. Scott F. says:

    I don’t know that what Mueller chose to do was such a disservice, since as I stated in another thread on the hearings, I never expected him to change the narrative on what is actually written in the report. Trump and his enablers have gotten away with claiming the sky is not blue for going on 3 years now and it stands to reason they would have lied about what the hearings revealed regardless of what he did to make explicit what he’s already reported.

    I further appreciate his calm demeanor in the face of some serious scorn heaped on him from Trump and his supporters over the last several years.

    But, I do have to say I was disappointed that he remained so calm in the face of the scorn heaped on him and his team over the entire course of the investigation and culminating in his treatment at the hearings. I had hoped that a man with such a reputation as honorable would not have stood for having the integrity of his work and his people maligned in the way the Republicans did so publicly. A more emphatic defense of the Special Counsel’s Office’s validity and impartiality was well warranted. The loathsome Gaetz and Gohmert needed to be smacked down hard for their disingenuous questioning.

  15. restless says:

    @Steven Taylor:

    I’ve heard they’re good, but I find it hard to listen to podcasts piecemeal. Written words work better with interruptions …

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Steven Taylor: @DrDaveT: Heh. 😉

  17. Tyrell says:

    @SKI: It is obvious by now that Mueller: did not write the report, had not read the report, knew little about the investigation itself, and had virtually no part in the investigation itself. He was a cover, a front. There was most likely no report at all until some of the members of the House started asking for the report. The last thing the Democrats want is for the veil to be pulled back on this farce. A sixth grade student can see through this.
    Who ordered the military style raids with agents armed with automatic rifles? This was in a peaceful neighborhood: come on. Who tipped off CNN? How many private citizens had their phones and other aspects of their lives invaded by this investigation?
    Who were the “controllers” sitting behind Mueller? We all know why they were there.
    Millions of tax payer money wasted. No more of these “investigations” by politicians. Vote them all out.
    John Q, Citizen was the victim here.

  18. SKI says:

    @Tyrell: “Obvious”…

    What seems obvious to me is that you are either an ignorant fool or a troll.

    Nothing you said bears any relation to reality.

  19. Matt says:

    @SKI:

    Nothing you said bears any relation to reality.

    It rarely does…

    My favorite part is his accusation that someone tipped off CNN. Because investigative journalism isn’t something… Granted it is vastly reduced compared to the historical norms but there are still those out there doing it.