Mueller Doesn’t Deliver
Everything you always wanted in a hearing. And less.
At a moment of particular gravity for the country, with the sitting president credibly accused of obstructing justice, and many of his campaign staff and associates under investigation and indictment, may I suggest that if you, a journalist, are bored with the politics of this—if you are demanding somehow to be entertained, right now—you’re not doing your job.
Politics isn’t entertainment, it is not a performance to be critiqued. Reporting on national politics is a public trust of solemn importance that affects hundreds of millions of people.
It took a former US Attorney and acting head of the DEA, Chuck Rosenberg, to drag MSNBC back to reality, after Williams’s remarks. “There’s a difference between ‘exciting’ and ‘important,’ he said. “There are things that are exciting that are not important; there are things that are important that are not particularly exciting.”
Well, sure. But the medium is often the message. In a televised hearing, delivery matters more than content.
We know this in the context of, for example, political debates. See my 2007 post, “Sound Byte Presidency”
Kevin Drum asks the rhetorical question, “[A]re we really all so stupid that we judge participants in presidential debates by who gets off the best prepackaged zingers? I mean, we do all understand that these things are written ahead of time by staffers and then desperately plugged in by the candidates come hell or high water, regardless of whether they actually make sense in context, right?”
Back in March 2003 (a much simpler time) Steven Taylor noted that the sound bytes from President Bush’s speeches were much better than the speeches themselves (to which I helpfully noted, “Of course, they’d almost have to be. . . .”) and that it was ultimately the former, not the latter, that mattered. Why? Because only a relative handful of people actually listen to these things live and the ones who do are those most likely to have their minds made up. A much larger — and more impressionable — group of people just hear the radio and television summaries the next day.
Not much has changed. While they had good ratings for primary debates, the first set this cycle is most remembered for Kamala Harris’ pre-planned attack on Joe Biden’s history on busing, not for any substantive policy proposals.
I had a busy day yesterday, closing on a new house, so only watched a bit of the hearings. But Mueller was just awful. I was expecting an incredibly well-prepared, brilliant legal analyst who brought enormous gravitas. Instead, I got a listless old man stumbling through answers and referring people to a report that, if they haven’t read it by now, aren’t gonna.
What critics of President Trump were hoping for was a captivating sound byte or three that would help crystalize for the American public that, yes, the President committed crimes. We didn’t get it.
So, yes, that’s the story.
Peter Baker of the NYT (“The Blockbuster That Wasn’t: Mueller Disappoints the Democrats“):
In the days leading up to the special counsel’s much-anticipated appearance before Congress, Democrats argued that hearing from Robert S. Mueller III on television could transform the impeachment debate. While Americans might not read the book, the argument went, they would watch the movie.
If so, the movie Americans tuned into on Wednesday was not the blockbuster Democrats had sought nor was Mr. Mueller the action star they had cast. Dignified but shaky, and at times struggling to keep up, he largely stuck to “yes” and “no” and “refer you to the report” answers, steadfastly refusing to dramatize his conclusions as President Trump’s critics wanted him to do.
By the time he finished nearly seven hours later, Democrats were disappointed they did not get the made-for-TV accusatory moment they wanted, and the prospect for impeachment appeared far more difficult. Although the president’s critics vowed to persist, a gleeful Mr. Trump claimed he was completely cleared while shouting angry insults at reporters on the South Lawn.
“Much as I hate to say it, this morning’s hearing was a disaster,” Laurence Tribe, the Harvard law professor who has argued that the House should pursue impeachment, wrote on Twitter. “Far from breathing life into his damning report, the tired Robert Mueller sucked the life out of it. The effort to save democracy and the rule of law from this lawless president has been set back, not advanced.”
Baker’s colleagues Sharon LaFraniere, Michael S. Schmidt, Noah Weiland and Adam Goldman add (“Mueller’s Labored Performance Was a Departure From His Once-Fabled Stamina“):
Once famous for his laserlike focus, Mr. Mueller, who will turn 75 next month, seemed hesitant about the facts in his own 448-page report. He struggled at one point to come up with the word “conspiracy.”
At one excruciatingly awkward moment, he stumbled over a poorly worded question about who was president when he served as a top federal prosecutor in 1986, apparently assuming the questioner meant his subsequent Justice Department post.
“He didn’t have the fight in him that he used to have,” said Glenn Kirschner, who worked with Mr. Mueller as a homicide prosecutor in the mid-1990s.
Mr. Mueller delivered a stronger performance in the afternoon, when the questioning focused on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election instead of whether the president had obstructed justice, noted John S. Pistole, a former deputy F.B.I. director. Mr. Mueller called forcefully for the government to do more to combat Russia’s continued efforts to meddle in American elections.
Still, Mr. Pistole acknowledged, he was not “as precise as he was in his dozens of previous appearances as director.”
For Mr. Mueller’s many Democratic and Republican fans, who revere his long, scandal-free record of public service, the testimony was sometimes painful to watch.
How painful? Even Trump’s allies came to Mueller’s defense.
Asked for comment, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, ticked off Mr. Mueller’s many accomplishments as a Vietnam War hero, as a federal prosecutor and as the F.B.I. director after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “This hearing should not be the judge of his service to our country,” Mr. Graham said somberly.
“Bob Mueller has served this country well and honorably,” said Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, who said he had watched about 30 minutes of the morning hearing before the House Judiciary Committee. “I hope this isn’t the American people’s last memory of him.”
#NeverTrump neocon and erstwhile Republican Max Boot (“Mueller wins on the facts — but loses on TV“) makes a brilliant counterfactual observation:
After watching more than six hours of congressional testimony Wednesday, here is my tentative conclusion: If Robert S. Mueller III had been FBI director in 2016, Donald Trump would never have been elected president. And if James B. Comey had been appointed special counsel in 2017, Trump might well have been impeached by now.
It is impossible to imagine someone as reticent and publicity-shy as Mueller holding a news conference to upbraid Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server even while announcing that he was not recommending an indictment. Even more importantly, Mueller surely would not have sent a letter to Congress announcing he was reopening the investigation just 11 days before the election — a move that may well have tipped a very close election.
On the other hand, Comey would not have been so terse and tight-lipped in presenting the findings of a special counsel report that painted a damning portrait of a president who (as Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) skillfully established with his questioning) actively sought Russian campaign help, lied about it and repeatedly tried to obstruct the resulting investigation. Since being fired by Trump, Comey has turned into an eloquent and unsparing critic of the president — and an impassioned defender of the FBI. In a Post op-ed on May 28, Comey denounced Trump’s habit of “ranting about treason and corruption at the FBI” and called the president “a liar who doesn’t care what damage he does to vital institutions.”
The consequence isn’t simply bad television but a boon for Trump. The New Yorker‘s Susan B. Glasser (“‘Accountability’? The Mueller Hearing Is How Trump Escapes It“):
After so much waiting—a hundred and twenty-four days, to be precise, since Robert Mueller’s report was delivered—perhaps it was bound to be a disappointment. Still, three hours after the former special counsel took the witness stand on Wednesday to testify about his investigation of President Trump and Russian interference in the 2016 election, the MSNBC anchor Brian Williams described it as a “disaster,” the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, called the hearing an “epic embarrassment” for the Democrats, and the pro-Trump Drudge Report ripped the septuagenarian former F.B.I. director as “dazed and confused.” The President, who had said he wouldn’t watch Mueller’s testimony but clearly could not restrain himself, seemed gleeful. “I would like to thank the Democrats for holding this morning’s hearing,” he tweeted after a few hours. Finally, there was something that Trump-era Washington could agree on: Mueller had bombed.
Wednesday’s hearing reinforced, and powerfully so, the Mueller report’s conclusions that Russia had, in fact, interfered in the U.S. election on Trump’s behalf, that the Trump team welcomed this intervention, and that Trump subsequently acted to impede the investigation of it. If the Democrats’ goal was to put on the record the facts that were already in the public record, they accomplished that. The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, who ran the morning’s hearing, and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, who ran the afternoon session, both gave lucid, powerful, and damning opening statements.
If only the hearing had ended there. But it didn’t. For hours, Mueller refused, more than a hundred times during the morning alone, to reply to even basic questions. He appeared unfamiliar with the material in a report that bears his name; at times, he seemed unable even to construct statements of any legal or investigative clarity at all. His comments were invariably grudging, cautious, defensive, and opaque.
The concerns about Mueller’s halting performance were not mere theatre criticism. He was unable to defend his report and its findings beyond simply referring lawmakers to the text, over and over again. In his effort not to be trapped by Democrats into suggesting that Trump should be impeached, Mueller did a disservice to his own work. He did not need to make new assertions of law or fact but merely explain in clear terms the conclusions he reached and why. There was not one moment when he did so.
That’s indeed a disaster.
My co-blogger Doug Mataconis is not wrong when he points out that the result was well short of an exhoneration for the President.
On both the issue of collusion between the Trump campaign and the potential for obstruction of justice on the President’s part, Mueller directly contradicted the claims of the President, the Attorney General, and the President’s supporters on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, Mueller made clear that his report did not exonerate the President.
It’s just that this is the real takeaway:
In the end, it’s unlikely that Mueller’s testimony will have moved the needle of public opinion significantly on either the Russia investigation itself or the question of impeachment. I say this because Mueller’s professorial delivery and demeanor is unlikely to have made a huge impact on a public that has only been following this story tangentially and because the public seems to be decidedly disinterested in impeachment at this time.
Moving the needle, alas, was the only reason to have the hearing in the first place.
The more the report has settled, the more I think Mueller did us a disservice by failing to reach conclusions and therefore punting to the Attorney General and Congress. Yesterday, he made it much harder for Congress to advance the ball.
Update (Doug Mataconis): My summary of yesterday’s hearing can be found at the link.