Mueller Doesn’t Deliver

Everything you always wanted in a hearing. And less.

Columbia Journalism Review public editor Maria Bustillos calls out MSNBC’s Chuck Todd and other political commenters for their focus on the optics of Bob Mueller’s Congressional testimony yesterday.

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.

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Donald Trump, Impeachment, Media, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. As I stated in my own post this morning, anyone expecting Mueller to go beyond the four corners of his report or to provide a smoking gun beyond what the report actually said was expecting something that Mueller had already said he wouldn’t deliver. It’s obvious to me the Mueller didn’t really want to testify yesterday, and would have preferred to let the report speaks for itself, but he nonetheless made clear that there are serious issues arising out of the 2016 election dealing with both the issue of foreign interference in the election and Trump’s potential culpability on the issues of collusion/conspiracy and obstruction of justice.

    Yes, the so-called “optics” of the hearings are such that it’s unlikely anyone’s mind will be changed, but the fact that people like Chuck Todd are spending more time talking about optics than about substance is a good part of what’s wrong with our political and media culture. Nothing Mueller said yesterday did anything to undermine what his report says, and that report is quite damning, Where we go from here is uncertain, but the fact that there’s more of a focus on the question of whether or not Mueller “looked” or performed well on television is precisely what’s wrong with politics today. And goes a long way toward explaining why Trump won in 2016 and why he might win again in 2020.

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  2. Teve says:

    Yes, the so-called “optics” of the hearings are such that it’s unlikely anyone’s mind will be changed, but the fact that people like Chuck Todd are spending more time talking about optics than about substance is a good part of what’s wrong with our political and media culture.

    very true, and a big part of how I realized that the Sunday shows were garbage and quit watching them two decades ago, back when Chuck Todd was named Tim Russert and was just as terrible.

    Sara Danner Dukic
    @saradannerdukic
    ·
    17h
    Mueller: I wrote a detailed, 400-page report explaining an attack on our country. I spent years on it. See also: indictments + people in prison.

    Pundits: yes, but can you do it with jazz hands? A table flip? A racist tweet? Otherwise, we’ll be bored.

    Jess Dweck
    @TheDweck
    ·
    6h
    If only there were someone whose job it was to clearly communicate the substance to the public
    Quote Tweet

    Chuck Todd
    @chucktodd
    · 19h
    On substance, Democrats got what they wanted: that Mueller didn’t charge Pres. Trump because of the OLC guidance, that he could be indicted after he leaves office, among other things. But on optics, this was a disaster. #MuellerHearings

  3. Kit says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Where we go from here is uncertain, but the fact that there’s more of a focus on the question of whether or not Mueller “looked” or performed well on television is precisely what’s wrong with politics today. And goes a long way toward explaining why Trump won in 2016 and why he might win again in 2020.

    Sure, of course you are right. But a misguided Mueller had his one moment to play the game and perhaps singlehandedly change the course of history. He refused to play, and in doing so seemingly undermined his own report.

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  4. SKI says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    the fact that people like Chuck Todd are spending more time talking about optics than about substance is a good part of what’s wrong with our political and media culture.

    VERY MUCH THIS!

  5. gVOR08 says:

    Comey appears to have made his public statements about HER EMAIL!!! out of fear the GOPs would attack the FBI if he didn’t do what he could to make Hillary look bad with what little he had. One has to wonder if Mueller isn’t, at least to some extent, similarly motivated.

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  6. Guarneri says:

    Surely the Democrats knew this was going to be a disastrous performance. Yet they trotted Mueller out, like a has been athlete attempting comeback number three, for their own selfish purposes. Shameful.

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    Yes, the so-called “optics” of the hearings are such that it’s unlikely anyone’s mind will be changed, but the fact that people like Chuck Todd are spending more time talking about optics than about substance is a good part of what’s wrong with our political and media culture. Nothing Mueller said yesterday did anything to undermine what his report says, and that report is quite damning

    Again, we don’t disagree on substance. I think there’s more than enough in the Mueller report to justify impeaching the President. But Nancy Pelosi and company have, correctly in my judgment, decided that it’s bad strategy to impeach in the House when Trump will win in the Senate.

    We can hate the game all we want but it’s the game. The hearings were going to be a disaster if they didn’t advance the ball. It was obvious going in. This was a debacle.

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  8. SenyorDave says:

    @Guarneri: Maybe they actually believe that a sitting president committing obstruction of justice matters. BTW, there was one group of people attacking Mueller for going on witch hunt and hiring dishonest people. Who were they?
    And you still haven’t answered the two basic questions I asked you yesterday (and I think these are questions most people here would like to know the answers to):
    What do you like so much about Trump, and why do you ignore his complete lack of morals? Maybe a third question while I’m at it:
    Do you consider Donald Trump a role model, and if you have a 8 – 15 year old male in your life (son, grandson, etc), would you like him to be like Donald Trump?
    Just to reiterate some examples of Trump’s morality (can never remind people enough about Trump’s ethics):
    He helped to run a fake university that scammed people out of money
    He stole from his own charity
    He was caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women
    He has been accused by more than a dozen women of sexual assault
    He has lied thousands of times in less than two and a half years as president
    He recently tweeted out overtly racist statements about four members of Congress
    He okayed policies that resulted in inhumane condition for children

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  9. SenyorDave says:

    Not completely off topic:
    Senate Republicans blocked two election security bills and a cybersecurity measure on Wednesday in the wake of former special counsel Robert Mueller warning about meddling attempts during his public testimony before congressional lawmakers.

    It is almost like they have some type of secret agenda where they want some entity to interfere in US elections.

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  10. Mikey says:

    @SenyorDave:

    It is almost like they have some type of secret agenda where they want some entity to interfere in US elections.

    Secret?

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  11. Teve says:

    @SenyorDave: And just yesterday a judge ruled that a lawsuit can continue against Trump and co-conspirators for running a Multi-Level Marketing scam.

  12. @Kit:

    It wasn’t Mueller’s job to be the guy who made history.

    It was his job to answer the questions put him the best he could based on what was in his report and the rules governing what he could and could not testify about.

    He did that.

  13. @James Joyner:

    I have made clear that I think Pelosi is right, at least from a political point of view. Pursuing impeachment under the current circumstances would be a bad political move for Democrats and would arguably do more to help the President than anything else.

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    What did I say yesterday? Oh yeah, “Meh.”

  15. Teve says:

    Pelosi’s probly not declining impeachment because the Senate wouldn’t convict, she’s declining impeachment because several dozen House dems would be vulnerable next November if they voted to impeach.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Ladies and Gentlemen? I present to you the “leader” of the “Free World”:

    Trump Appeared Before Presidential Seal Doctored To Include Russia, Golf Imagery

    The sad part is the Guarneries of the US will think nothing at all of their hero’s and his henchmen’s repeated demonstrations of monumental stupidity. Master race my ass.

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  17. Kit says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    It wasn’t Mueller’s job to be the guy who made history.

    I suspect you are right, Doug. Mueller did his best, wrote up his report, and went home, his job done. That report was attacked from one side, and proved insufficient ammunition for the other. When he was given one last chance to hammer home just what his conclusions were on the gravest matter ever entrusted to him, and of the utmost importance to his country, he basically said: not my job any more.

  18. Guarneri says:

    @SenyorDave:

    You, and they, can believe in the tooth fairy, too, if you like. It doesn’t mean they have to publicly humiliate a man to satisfy your fantasies.

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  19. mattbernius says:

    Sadly I agree on most counts James.

    In particular, I think Boot is completely right (eff… when will the darkest timeline end? I’m sick and tired of agreeing with Max Boot and a number of others — at least in this one, very narrow area…)

  20. Teve says:

    @mattbernius: Have pity for Boot. If it takes someone 50 years to realize a buncha racist idiots are racist idiots, then maybe intellectually speaking, he’s…doing the best he can.

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  21. Bob@Youngstown says:
  22. michael reynolds says:

    Reality did not change because Mueller gave a bad performance.

    – Trump is still a Putin stooge and a traitor.
    – Trump is still a con man who among other things ran a phony charity.
    – Trump is still a racist hate-monger.
    – Trump is still a sexual creep.
    – Trump is still a serial adulterer.
    – Trump’s National Security Advisor, Campaign Manager, Deputy Campaign Manager, Foreign Policy Advisor and personal attorney, are still confessed/convicted criminals.
    – Trump’s SecDef and SecState still describe him as, ‘a moron.’
    – Trump is still corrupt to his bones.
    – Trump is still a liar.

    – The people who still support Trump are still racist, misogynist creeps and losers.

    Oh, and I’ve been right about Trump from the start, and right about so-called conservatives, evangelical ‘Christians’ and Republicans in general, point by point, detail by detail, for many years.

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  23. Kathy says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:

    This confirms that many evangelicals want Christian supremacy, which means forcing their faith-justified prejudices on others. Some may also be white supremacists.

    Also, for the rest, I’d tell them that were Christianity not hell-bent on excluding people, it would not be gaining irrelevance so quickly.

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  24. Scott F. says:

    How was Mueller ever going to “deliver” when we live in a country where everyone gets to choose their own facts and Trump lies are, how do they say, baked in?

    Does anyone here really believe that it would have mattered had Mueller been forceful and clarifying in his testimony regarding the already damning evidence in the report? Trump, and his lickspittles like Guarneri, would be declaring total exoneration and victory today no matter what Mueller said or did. And 82% of Republicans would have agreed.

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  25. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    And if James B. Comey had been appointed special counsel in 2017, Trump might well have been impeached by now.

    Unless Comey decided to take one for the team in the same way he gave one to the team in 2016.

  26. gVOR08 says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:

    “their belief that they are engaged in an existential struggle” for Christianity.

    One of the best things I’ve read on understanding conservatives was a 2009 piece by Daniel McCarthy in The American Conservative. He talks about what he calls high church and low church conservatives. He notes five characteristics of low church conservatives.

    Fourth is a belief that the eschaton is imminent (if not immanent). Every political battle is a clash of titanic principle, a skirmish in the final conflict between light and darkness

    Well worth reading the whole piece. Seems more relevant now than when it was written.

  27. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @SenyorDave: Since Guarneri defaulted again on answering your questions, I would like to volunteer as Guarneri clone (or clown as the case may be).
    Q: What do you like so much about Trump? That he gets into Reynolds head as much as Reynolds gets into mine. Also that he’s not a libtard snowflake.

    Q: [W]hy do you ignore his complete lack of morals? This is not church or philosophy class; this is business and government. When has morality ever had any bearing on either one? Why should anyone let morals stop them from ruling or making money whatever way they see fit to?
    Q: Do you consider Donald Trump a role model, and if you have a 8 – 15 year old male in your life (son, grandson, etc), would you like him to be like Donald Trump? Well of course, I am the only role model that I’ll ever need and I would hope that my grandson would use me as his role model. If he chose to use Trump as a role model though, I would certainly hope that he would be better at being Trump than Trump has been. Trump could be doing so much more on all fronts if he would only work more at it. For a businessman, he’s pretty lazy.

  28. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: I only skimmed the article and will have to go back, but it seems to be the same article (idea wise, not as in plagiarism) that David Gergen wrote for the Atlantic a few years ago just after the election. I read it on the way home from New Zealand. Interesting article, as I’m sure this one will be, but I’m struck by the feeling that there isn’t really anything to be said about either Trump or Evangelical Conservative politics (and the message there goes back to the 80s and Jerry Falwell Sr.) that hasn’t already been said. They seem like really shallow pools for fishing. I wonder what that says about our societal learning curves, or success at curing stupid?

  29. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: And yes, they are in an existential struggle for Christianity, against themselves (and losing badly, too)!

    …work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky. Philippians 2:12-15 [emphasis added]

    It’s always surprising to me that they don’t know this passage–especially considering that it’s ascribed to their favorite apostle.

  30. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Bob@Youngstown: A Christianity that has no need of an itinerant carpenter from Galilee or his words.

  31. Tyrell says:

    There are any number of jokes that I could pull out here, but I will refrain out of respect to Director Mueller’s military service to this country, and his age.
    This man was an Army Ranger, paratrooper, and had exemplary service in the Vietnam War. He also made it through Parris Island training: one of the hottest, muggiest places on earth.

  32. sam says:

    He was a Marine.

  33. Zachriel says:

    @James Joyner: Mueller Doesn’t Deliver

    Actually, Mueller delivered exactly what he said he would. He affirmed the conclusions of the Special Counsel’s report while avoiding the politics thereof. He answered the questions clearly and precisely. He fervently believes that laying out the facts is sufficient for posterity, and that the wheel of justice turns towards truth, even if it turns slowly.

    Ultimately, the American people elected Trump. Until they are ready to face the truth, they will continue to support him.