Start with the obvious. As political theater, the Democrats’ decision to put former Special Counsel Robert Mueller under oath was a catastrophe.
The Democrats believed a televised hearing would give the legalistic Mueller report a PR kick. It was said people weren’t “reading the book,” but they might “watch the movie.”
They didn’t. Robert Mueller was lost from the start, unable to recall basic details, like what Fusion GPS is (he said he isn’t “familiar” with the political oppo firm), or the meaning of “collusion” versus “conspiracy,” or the identity of the president who first appointed him acting U.S. Attorney (“I think that was President Bush,” he sighed, before being told it was Reagan).
At times Mueller appeared to be merely non-answering questions. In other cases he seemed genuinely confused, unable to remember names, dates, and events, or follow the logical thread of questions.
Both Democrats and Republicans appeared startled by his inability to follow questioning, and commentators on both sides of the political aisle pronounced Mueller’s performance a train wreck.
“This is very, very painful,” tweeted former Obama strategist David Axelrod.
“I don’t know what the #Dems were expecting from #RobertMueller,” wrote Howard Fineman, “but this probably wasn’t it.”
“No mincing words here,” wrote Paul Kane of the Washington Post. “It’s a bad morning for the pro-impeachment crowd.”
The day went from bad to worse for Nadler and Schiff, who by early afternoon had much of America wondering how two of its most important committee chiefs could be this ill-prepared.
The talking point after the morning hearing was that Mueller, for all his confusion, had at least thrown Democrats a bone by agreeing to a question asked by California congressman Ted Lieu. Lieu asked: Was the reason Mueller refused to indict Donald Trump rooted in an Office of Legal Counsel opinion that sitting presidents can’t be charged?
“That is correct,” Mueller said.
A few hours later, Mueller took the stand in Schiff’s hearing and babbled a clarification:
“I want to go back to one thing that was said this morning by Mr. Lieu who said, and I quote, ‘You didn’t charge the president because of the OLC opinion.’ That is not the correct way to say it,” he began. “As we say in the report and as I said at the opening, we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”
The “big story so far” was (as Vox put it) Mueller being “imprecise in answering.” A retracted headline being the big story of the day was a perfect symbol of the last two years of fevered media speculations.
The main result of Wednesday’s hearing was to lift the lid on a two-year media myth.
When Mueller was appointed Special Counsel in the wake of James Comey’s firing two years ago, the press plunged into hagiography mode. Donald Trump really screwed up this time, we were told, trading the “anguished Hamlet” James Comey for the “adamantine Marine” Mueller. He picked the fight with the wrong G-Man!
Mueller was soon a literal religious icon, depicted as a steely “Lie Detector” on the cover of Time. He became so many things to so many people over two years that Atlantic magazine did not seem ridiculous when it depicted him, cape-clad, above a headline reading:
Batman. Superman. Boyfriend. Savior.
Saturday Night Live hailed Mueller in a musical routine as political Santa Claus, who’d bring us all indictments for Christmas. We were told over and over of Mueller’s investigatory acumen and bottomless rectitude (support for the WMD fiasco notwithstanding). Moreover, the “pragmatism” he projected gave hope for “what he might ultimately achieve on behalf of American democracy.”
The Post gushed he was the “most unknowable man in Washington.” He was “omnipresent and absent, inescapable but elusive, the invisible yang to Trump’s gold-plated yin.”
And yet, throughout all this, Mueller barely spoke.
It was universally assumed Mueller was keeping quiet because he was a master poker player, refusing to show the aces up his sleeve. His probe would be remembered for its “close-to-the-vest style.” This became central to the mythology of Mueller, that his cabbage-like silence implied strength.
“He gives me reassurance that all is not lost,” one Kansas City woman told the Associated Press. “I admire his mystique. I admire that I haven’t heard his voice…”
At best, this all turned out in the end to be a Chauncey Gardiner story, in which the mute protagonist at the center of a media maelstrom became a public Rorschach test. People saw in Mueller what they wanted to see. In the current age, this mainly meant a super-avenger who would bring an end to the horrible Trump presidency.
Although a cardinal principle of journalism is not assuming things that aren’t on the record, media companies did just that in the last two years. Audiences were urged to expect Mueller to deliver an implied promise to end the Trump presidency.
If the Russia investigation is truly like Watergate,” FiveThirtyEight wrote, “Mueller’s team may already have the evidence it needs to topple the Trump presidency, and we just don’t know about it yet.”
A detailed indictment of Russian intelligence agents, Axios reported last year, suggested “supreme confidence that [Mueller] has the goods.” It also meant that Mueller had “access to much more intelligence than is publicly known.”
The theme that “Mueller knows” more than he was letting on was constant. No other reading of the news was entertained.
Until the hearing this week, it was never even suggested that Mueller was being shielded from press conferences because he couldn’t hold up in front of the cameras, or physically incapable of running his own investigation. Yet one of his own former prosecutors, Glenn Kirschner, just suggested Mueller had a “health issue” causing a “dramatic difference … in communicative abilities.” How had we not heard that before?
The reason was, nobody in the press had seen or demanded evidence Mueller was up to the job.
This was because nobody had seen evidence he wasn’t up to the job. Mueller was a still picture only. Few of us had ever seen live-action Mueller interacting with the public. His press conference on May 29th of this year did not involve taking questions. As Axelrod noted, he hadn’t publicly testified before congress in six years. He was a cipher.
Four years ago this summer, when I was sent out to cover the Clown Car race, I thought I was watching the death of the Republicans as a modern political party. The GOP was being taken over by Donald Trump, an unelectable fringe candidate who would never come within miles of besting the Obama coalition. Trump’s embarrassing run would leave Democrats in power for a generation.
Since then the Democrats have repeatedly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in one improbable face-plant after another. This is just the latest disaster. They hyped Robert Mueller for two years as an all-conquering hero, only to have him show up under oath like a man wandering in traffic. Incredible. The losses continue.