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Why We All Watched Robert Mueller Testify

Democrats wanted to read his report aloud to the American people, and needed him there as a draw for people to watch. So we’ve seen it. What now?

Former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is sworn in for his testimony before Congress on July 24, 2019, in Washington, DC. - Mueller said Wednesday he did not exonerate US President Donald Trump in his two-year Russian meddling investigation but also told lawmakers he will not say if the president committed a crime, as he launched into a marathon day of congressional testimony. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Former Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is sworn in for his testimony before Congress on July 24, 2019, in Washington, DC. - Mueller said Wednesday he did not exonerate US President Donald Trump in his two-year Russian meddling investigation but also told lawmakers he will not say if the president committed a crime, as he launched into a marathon day of congressional testimony.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Robert Mueller hadn’t testified before a Congressional committee in a while, and it showed. The last time was when he was FBI Director under President Obama, more than six years ago. I won’t ascribe his rustiness or halting speech to his 74 years, because I’m neither a doctor nor an asshole. I don’t know whether he was old, tired, a bit unprepared, is usually boring, or whether he might have simply tried to not to be used as a partisan tool by either the Democrats or Republicans in a made-for-television event. 

Democrats asked the former special counsel to appear and testify before the House Judiciary and the House Intelligence Committees on Wednesday for one clear reason. They wanted to stage a reading of the Mueller Report live on television, and they needed a star attraction to draw American eyeballs to the screen. Mueller promised at his May press conference that if called to testify, he would not say more than what was in his report, and Democrats counted on the content being damning enough. 

As cable-news and online talking heads talked about Mueller “struggling” at the mic and complained about the “optics” of the hearings, many on the left insisted that the visuals didn’t matter. Then why was he there at all, testifying in public? For once, the Democrats seized a key lesson from Watergate: put damaging information about the corrupt president on television so that the American people can see it for themselves.

There were three problems with that plan, however. The first is that Democrats were forced to invite Republicans, who were intent upon performing their histrionics to make Attorney General William Barr’s unethical investigation of the investigators appear like a quest for justice. Tinfoil hatters like Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Rep. Greg Steube of Florida had the nerve to claim that the left were conspiracy mongers even as they used the hearing to lie and form their own. Secondly, Mueller was not their ally and therefore unavailable to prepare the presentation of the message. He was not a witness they could prepare, nor was going to be helpful in shaping their narrative, going so far as to defuse perhaps the key “gotcha” moment of the entire proceeding well after the fact: taking time at the start of the Intelligence hearing to clarify something from the previous one. No, he didn’t mean to say that he didn’t indict Trump just because he was prohibited by a statute barring the Justice Department from prosecuting sitting presidents. Instead, “we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.” Trying to make Mueller co-sign polemics was always going to backfire, and it was stupefying to watch Democrats try it.

And lastly, this is a different public, deluged with information and choices, than the 1973 audience that watched with a rapt eye as Watergate witnesses droned on about the Nixon administration’s crimes. Would our fellow Americans even be receptive to the truth if we heard it?

Time will tell, but we had better hope so. Mueller laid out quite a bit in between the repetitions of ”I’m not going to get into that” and “I’m not going to speak to that.” Even if the Democrats are beaten up by the pundits in the short term, then so be it. Historians may be thankful that they did this, but other observers may note that people who read the transcripts or explainers afterward derived more from the event than those who watched it live.

It is easier, after taking a breath, to assess all that Mueller said. He made it clear Trump wasn’t exonerated and, with Republican Ken Buck’s unwitting help, also made clear a president could be charged with obstructing justice after leaving office — which some would argue might be Trump’s primary motivation behind winning re-election. “Absolutely, it was not a hoax,” he said of the Russian interference in our elections. “It’s not a witch hunt,” he responded when asked about his own investigation. Of the written answers he provided to the special counsel, Mueller said that Trump was “generally untruthful” and incomplete and also accused the president’s team of lies and cover-ups. Asked about Trump’s sycophantic praise of WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign, Mueller all but called him an accessory, saying that “it’s problematic — is an understatement, in terms of what it displays in terms of giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity.” And the list of statements that he confirmed as fact throughout the two hearings is much longer than the list of persnickety complaints that many news outlets will publish about the entertainment value of the day’s events.

Buck’s mistake wasn’t the only Republican error of the day. Their histrionics may have played well with their Fox News viewers, as will the already disproven conspiracies about the Steele dossier and Joseph Mifsud. But they didn’t seriously challenge a single fact about Trump’s behavior contained within the 448 pages of the Mueller Report, opting to try to discredit Mueller and his team than to try to exonerate the president. Why try to do the impossible, I guess, but it is telling.

This was a bet that the Democrats had to take, especially since the House members haven’t used their full impeachment powers to hold President Trump responsible for his offenses, even after being presented with the findings of the report. Contrary to the assertions of the Republicans, this wasn’t set up to get Mueller to push the Democrats closer to impeachment. As the president lights the nation on fire, they are trying to just look busy enough so that they can maintain a House majority. It isn’t an ignoble goal, considering that giving a second-term Trump two Congressional houses would be cataclysmic. Let’s just not confuse it with true accountability.

Imagine if they tried for it, though. That Republicans steadily refuse to truly defend Trump’s behavior is a sign that Wednesday should be a prelude to a larger television spectacle. The New York Times, in their liveblog, indicated that contrary to Trump’s previous assertions that he wouldn’t be watching Mueller’s testimony, he was still in the White House residence during at least the Judiciary portion. He was likely watching. Imagine what impeachment would do to him. We’d likely be safer as a nation with Trump’s eyeballs surgically attached to the flatscreen.

If the Democrats understand the Mueller testimony as a hint of their true power, to use the truth as a weapon not just to disturb Trump but to correct the course of our current politics and history, then they might be onto something. If they are swayed by a bunch of pundit complaints about how they performed today and start making small, unnecessary changes to how they do things, then they will keep losing to a president who understands his purpose all too well. White patriarchy and authoritarianism are horrible goals, but not terribly complicated ones. Mueller illustrated today that he had a very clear objective, as well: pursue the truth and uphold his integrity. 

The Democrats likely managed to help the American public understand the Mueller Report a bit better. What they eventually plan to accomplish with all that information, however, remains to be seen.

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