The Power of the Spoken Word

Yesterday's press event with Robert Mueller underscores the importance of congressional testimony.

Yesterday, Robert Mueller spoke. It was the first time most people had heard his voice and it was a major news event. It was widely reported and discussed. It was prompted additional responses from Donald Trump.

What did Mueller say? Pretty much what he said in the report. For example, from yesterday:

“If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mr. Mueller said, reading from prepared notes behind a lectern at the Justice Department. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”


NYT: Mueller, in First Comments on Russia Inquiry, Declines to Clear Trump

This is not that different a key passage from the report:

if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.


Vol. 2, p. 8 of the Mueller Report

He clarified that he could not bring charges due to existing Department of Justice of policy on indicting a sitting president. This, too, could be gleaned from the report.

Therefore, a lot of people (Trump included) have noted that there is nothing new here. On the substance, that is true. But the bottom line is that having Mueller speak has more impact on broader understanding on the public than does the printed word.

The statement was covered as news, and it was covered far more directly than the previous printed version was. Prior to yesterday, AG Barr had been the only person speaking on behalf of the report. And from the beginning, Barr has been clearly trying to control the narrative.

This is why Mueller should testify, even if all he basically does is repeat the words of the report.

Mueller seems to clearly believe that the Congress should take up the report and determine what needs to be done next. And if what comes next is further investigation, the main way to amplify the contents of the report is to have hearings, even if those hearings are just audio versions of the report.

The spoken word, especially when reinforced by video, has more impact than does a published report. This is especially true in terms of the way news affects public opinion.

This is why the Trump administration is doing all it can to block congressional testimony as linked to this report’s findings.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, 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. mattbernius says:

    Did you by chance listen to the Lawfare podcast on the Mueller statement (https://www.lawfareblog.com/lawfare-podcast-special-edition-muellers-last-word)? If not, I highly suggest it. They spent quite a bit of time discussing this line of thought (and netted out in the same place).

    He clarified that he could not bring charges due to existing Department of Justice of policy on indicting a sitting president. This, too, could be gleaned from the report.

    Agreed though I feel this was under reported previously (and even now). It’s also worth noting that in saying this he did contract Barr’s previous comments.

    Mueller seems to clearly believe that the Congress should take up the report and determine what needs to be done next. And if what comes next is further investigation, the main way to amplify the contents of the report is to have hearings, even if those hearings are just audio versions of the report.

    They covered this as well and suggested that Mueller’s statement was in part to say that he would not play the role of Starr in that investigation (i.e. enable congress to call him as the only witness to testify — something I totally did not realize that Congress had done in the case of Clinton).

  2. @mattbernius: I have not, but will put it on my list.

    And yes: I have been struck by several different statements I have read in passing about how little testimony there was in the Clinton impeachment. I did not recall it as being so sparse (but, in retrospect, I do not remember much testimony). The Watergate model is so prominent in my mind that it really comes across as paradigmatic.

  3. Pylon says:

    Mueller’s opinion that his report is all he needs to say strikes me as a bit condescending, like he thinks that surely no one could come up with questions that elicit further information or further clarify something that’s ambiguous in his report. As a lawyer, I almost never let written statements proceed without further oral questioning.

  4. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    I highly recommend that podcast (or at least that episode — it’s an hour, though 10 minutes of that is just Mueller’s full statement played uninterrupted).

    In terms of the Clinton impeachment, it apparently was just Starr. One of the members of the Lawfare podcast was on Starr team and commented that in that case, Congress farmed everything out to Starr and the report. They didn’t call a single primary witness or actor. Honestly I was shocked. I was just out of college when it happened and while I remember lots of hearings, I didn’t follow them closely.

  5. Bob@Youngstown says:

    What (finally) dawned on me yesterday was that Mueller was (diplomatically) saying that the decision to indict or not was not passed to AG Barr.

    Rather that Barr was precluded from making a decision to indict by the same DOJ policy that constrained Mueller.

  6. Joe says:

    @Bob@Youngstown:
    FWIW, Mueller’s letter claims that he and Rosenstein reached their “no prosecution” decision without regard to the DOJ policy about not prosecuting a sitting president.

  7. JohnMcC says:

    I too am surprised at the casualness of the Clinton impeachers in depending only on Mr Starr’s testimony. One need only follow the post-presidential careers of Starr and Clinton to see how that turned out — with Starr shamed and fired for preferential treatment of Baylor’s football players over their victims.

    That contrasts strongly at the seemingly endless Watergate hearings that were live-streamed in an age before live-streaming. The difference between the polling of the two impeachments tells us all we need to know about the importance of public preparation.

    I hope Pelosi gets all the theater she can manage.

    I’d also suggest that impeaching the Attorney General would be an excellent piece of theater to get the ball rolling. It would probably take up the majority of the remaining first term for Mr Trump but would leave a plan B is there election turns out badly.

  8. mattbernius says:

    @Joe:

    Mueller’s letter claims that he and Rosenstein reached their “no prosecution” decision without regard to the DOJ policy about not prosecuting a sitting president.

    Can you find where it explicitly says that. My understanding is that is what *Barr* said. Mueller’s statement yesterday seemed to explicitly state the opposite.

  9. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    @Pylon:

    Mueller’s opinion that his report is all he needs to say strikes me as a bit condescending,

    I don’t know. Not only the report is clear in what it says, it was entirely predictable that Mueller’s report would point out to exactly this type of petty corruption and obstruction(What John Oliver called “Stupid Watergate”) since the beginning.

  10. Pylon says:

    @Andre Kenji de Sousa:

    I do not disagree that it’s clear. But answers to short, well prepared questions can be even clearer. And they can often leave no room for spin, if the questioning is done well.

  11. dmichael says:

    I agree completely with what you say but then ask: What does this say about our major media and our electorate? That the truth can only penetrate through television?

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    As a lawyer, I almost never let written statements proceed without further oral questioning.

    And you are concluding (or at least seem to be) that he did because…?

  13. Moosebreath says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    “And you are concluding (or at least seem to be) that he did because…?”

    I think you have the parties wrong. I think Pylon meant that Congress shouldn’t let Mueller’s written statement stand without further oral questioning.

  14. @dmichael:

    I agree completely with what you say but then ask: What does this say about our major media and our electorate? That the truth can only penetrate through television?

    Well, first it is undeniable that audio+video is more compelling than is the written word (especially in a context like this). Second, it is just undeniable that the population gets its information more from the coverage of events that have sounds more than those based on text.

    Also: it makes me think of teaching. Just telling the class to “read the book” is insufficient–even if teaching a book that I wrote.

  15. @mattbernius:

    I highly recommend that podcast

    I do listen to Lawfare on a semi-regular basis (and listen to Rational Security weekly).

    I listened to this one this morning after your recommendation (I had a long car ride to a meeting on one of our satellite campuses). Definitely worth a listen.

  16. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Joe: @mattbernius:
    Moreover, this from Mueller’s report:

    we considered whether to evaluate the conduct we investigated under the Justice Manual standards governing prosecution and declination decisions, but we determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes.

    To me that says, that Mueller & Rosenstein decided to NOT to evaluate the conduct uncovered because that COULD lead us to a judgement that the President committed crimes and that would be at odds with the DOJ standards. (In that DOJ has no prerogative to charge a sitting president)

  17. Pylon says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    I’m saying that Congress should question him because oral questioning is almost always better than just having written statements.

  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Moosebreath: I did think that he was talking about a general principle that he uses rather than what both of you have clarified. Fair enough. Given that he pledged in his statement that he would add nothing to the record as it stands in the written statement, I do wonder what the goal of calling him to testify and listening to him repeat what he has already said would be, but that’s a fight I don’t got a dog for, so I’ll leave now.

  19. Joe says:

    Important correction with apologies to mattbernius and Bob@Youngstown, I meant Barr‘s letter, not Mueller’s.

  20. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: thanks for the suggestion for rational security. I will have to start listening to that.