Was Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony a blockbuster or a dud?
Commentators who focused on optics have generally concluded that Mueller’s testimony was a complete dud, a bad television show. Those who focused on the transcript, rather than the performance, tended to believe that Mueller’s testimony will one day be viewed as important to the historical record of the Trump presidency.
They’re both right. They’re just looking at different things.
The success or failure of Mueller’s testimony can’t be judged by any one metric alone. Mueller’s testimony was necessarily directed to multiple audiences, each with a different objective. Here’s my scorecard:
Impact on the historical record: B-
Historians are likely to give greater significance to Mueller’s testimony than contemporary voters. The written transcript is rife with Mueller’s recognition of Trump’s lawlessness, mendacity and indecency: the Russians interfered with our election; Trump welcomed and encouraged that interference, giving hope to and boosting the criminal efforts of WikiLeaks and Russia; Trump and everyone around him lied about their Russian contacts; Trump was not exonerated of either collusion or obstruction of justice; and more.
The halting, reluctant and sometimes confused manner in which these damning truths were confirmed may not have been the stuff of reality TV, but historical judgment will be more kind than contemporary reactions.
Still, nobody will ever view this testimony as a masterpiece. B- is the grade that good schools give people who get by without distinction. It seems about right here.
Educating low-information voters about Mueller’s report: F
Any time the transcript is better than the live performance, televised testimony won’t have a transformative public impact.
Almost all of Mueller’s damning testimony was delivered in mumbled, emotionless yes and no answers to questions posed by congressional Democrats. Much more was needed to break through to low-information voters, some of whom didn’t even know that Mueller had issued a report, much less what was in it. They did “know,” because they were told by Trump and Attorney General Barr, that there was no collusion, no obstruction, and that Trump was totally exonerated by Mueller’s report.
Mueller could have broken through to this audience by bringing his report to life. He didn’t. Instead, his affectless testimony had the opposite effect of deadening the report’s impact. Fox News didn’t have to rebut any high-impact sound bites or attack Mueller’s motives and integrity.
Instead, they could portray him as a doddering, confused old man who didn’t even seem to know what was in his own report.
That may have been an ugly, cruel way to treat a stalwart American patriot who has given more to this country than Trump and the Fox News talking heads combined. But it was the theme that reverberated through the Fox News echo chamber nonetheless.
That’s hardly the stuff of reality television, and it’s unlikely to change the mind of a single Trump supporter.
Moving congressional Democrats toward impeachment: B
Mueller’s testimony moved only a handful of Democrats to declare that they have moved into the “impeach” column, hardly a tidal wave.
But the testimony appears to have emboldened the House Judiciary Committee to admit publicly, for the first time, that they are “investigating whether to recommend articles of impeachment against the president.”
On Friday, the Judiciary Committee asked a federal judge to unseal secret grand jury materials for the specific purpose of exercising the House’s constitutional authority to hold a president accountable, including “a constitutional power of the utmost gravity – approval of articles of impeachment.” Citing the DOJ policy prohibiting prosecution of a sitting president, the request pointedly referred to the House as “the only institution of the federal government that can now hold President Trump accountable” for the actions identified in the Mueller report.
By openly invoking the impeachment process, the Judiciary Committee greatly strengthened its legal footing to obtain not only grand jury information, but to overcome all sorts of stonewalling by Trump and his supporters, who can no longer claim that there is no legislative purpose behind the Committee’s inquiries. This still falls short of the Nixon precedent, where the full House had voted to declare the opening of an impeachment inquiry, but that could turn out to be a distinction without a difference.
Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler called Mueller’s testimony an “inflection point” leading to his belated admission that he was, indeed, already conducting an impeachment inquiry.
So why not an even higher grade for Mueller in this category?
Because this inflection point seems to have been created by the mere existence of Mueller’s testimony, not its strength. A stronger performance would have moved the needle even further.
Moving congressional Republicans off their support of Trump: F
I suppose it could have been worse, but not much.
The House Judiciary Committee was already chomping at the bit to publicly acknowledge that it was conducting an impeachment inquiry. Mueller’s testimony didn’t change that, it merely provided a convenient pretext to take the next step.
And historical vindication may be important to future history students, but it’s not going to do much for us right now.