Mueller and the Struggle for Truth in the Trump Twitter Era
WASHINGTON — Not so long ago, a powerful Republican congressman gave a revealing, behind-the-curtain glimpse at how the modern-day Republican Party had drifted away from reality. The Republican said the biggest change he’d witnessed in his time in Congress was the growth of pseudo-media outlets and hyper-partisan outside groups that polluted the political discourse with misleading, if not false, information. The effect of this, he said, was alarming:
“I used to spend ninety percent of my constituent response time on people who call, email, or send a letter, such as, ‘I really like this bill, H.R. 123,’ and they really believe in it because they heard about it through one of the groups that they belong to, but their view was based on actual legislation. Ten percent were about ‘Chemtrails from airplanes are poisoning me’ to every other conspiracy theory that’s out there. And that has essentially flipped on its head…It’s dramatically changed politics and politicians, and what they’re doing.”
This phenomenon was on full display Wednesday when former Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified for seven hours before two congressional committees about his final report. Democrats had summoned Mueller in large part to make a simple point: That, despite all the tweets and speeches, his investigation had uncovered crimes, revealed a massive assault on American democracy by a foreign power — and did not exonerate the president who had benefitted from it.
But while Mueller unambiguously reaffirmed these findings, the hearings were also a microcosm of our post-truth age. They illustrated how difficult it is for anyone to establish basic facts when there’s a congenital liar in the White House who’s backed by a host of congressional collaborators and an echo chamber of right-wing media who report directly from their own fever dreams.
In the run-up to Mueller’s testimony, there were comparisons to past dramatic hearings: Watergate, Iran-Contra, the Clinton impeachment. House Democrats said they hoped questioning Mueller about his 448-page report on live TV would “bring it to life.” For Republicans, it was the “the last gasp of the Russia collusion conspiracy theory,” as Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, put it.
The Democrats, knowing not to expect any windy digressions from their witness, chose to read aloud the most damning passages of the Mueller Report and ask Mueller for confirmation that what they’d read was true and was, yes, damning. It made for less-than-compelling television, but it served to dismantle Trump’s claim that the report had amounted to “total exoneration.” It also reminded the American public that foreign election interference had not gone away. “They’re doing it as we sit here,” Mueller said.
But watching the questioning toggle between Democrats and Republicans was like yo-yoing between dimensions. Like many of the Republicans who questioned Mueller, Rep. Nunes spoke as if he’d read a different Mueller Report. In his version of events, it was Hillary Clinton and the Democrats who had colluded with Russia in the 2016 election, with the help of an obscure cast of characters, some of them embedded inside the so-called Deep State.
The notion that Clinton would’ve enlisted the help of a foreign enemy, led by a man who openly loathed her, in an effort to frame Donald Trump (but also lose the election?) rises nearly to the level of QAnon-style conspiracy theorizing. Nunes wasn’t alone, however. Many of his fellow Republicans sang from the same hymnal.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) breathlessly and without context rattled off name after name — Halper, Downer, Mifsud, Thompson, Turk — all of them supposedly part of a deep-state plot to take down Trump. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) entered into the official record “Robert Mueller, Unmasked,” a report that accused the Vietnam veteran and former FBI director of having a “disreputable, twisted history” and of leading a “coup” against Trump. And from whose fevered imagination had these unhinged claims sprung forth? Louie Gohmert’s.
To the average person, the names cited by Nunes, Jordan, and their colleagues barely registered. To the average Fox News watcher, Rush Limbaugh listener, and Breitbart reader, the Republicans had spoken truth to power, revealing the vast corruption that lay just beneath the surface of the Mueller investigation. (The Daily Show tweeted out a clip of Nunes’ remarks overlaid with nearly identical statements made by Fox host Sean Hannity.)
Nowadays, when a Republican congressman or senator launches into an overheated rant about the Deep State or the corrupt Democrats, the knee-jerk response is that he’s “speaking to an audience of one” — namely, President Trump. But that’s not quite right. That congressman is also speaking to the millions of people who live in a siloed, self-contained ecosystem of media and information with its own facts, truths, and realities. This alternate reality made no mention of Mueller’s insistence that his report did not exculpate Trump or any other quote of Mueller’s that wasn’t flattering to the president.
The idea that the pro-Trump media ecosystem was ever, in any way, vulnerable to repeating information from the Special Counsel's actual report if you put Mueller on the stand was always pure fantasy.
It is a siloed, implacable world, where the president is a permanent victim. pic.twitter.com/TpzSZzbqCO
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) July 24, 2019
Speaking to reporters afterward on the White House lawn, Trump called the Mueller hearings “a very big day for the Republican Party. And you could say this was a great day for me, but I don’t even like to say that.” House Democrats claimed victory as well. “This is a great victory for the truth and for the possibility of justice in the country, because America finally got to see what Special Counsel Mueller was talking about,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) said.
This clash of realities was enough to drive any sane person mad, including that powerful Republican congressman who had once lamented the conspiratorial drift of his party. His name was Devin Nunes.