Call it the big mistake.
The televised theatre of U.S. congressional hearings and testimony is a particular arena in which the winner provides concise sound bites and uses sincere, savage indignation to have impact. Anyone who expected Robert Mueller to be a winner in that arena on Wednesday, or offer a win for the Democrats, was delusional.
Reticent, withdrawn and careful, all Mr. Mueller’s testimony did was validate the other side. That’s a cruel assessment, you might think, given the man’s age, integrity and a handful of his forceful pronouncements, but television is a bloody cruel medium.
It was mind-numbing, all of it. There was a nine-person chinwag on CNN in the pause between Mr. Mueller’s two testimony appearances on Wednesday. Near the end, Jeffrey Toobin asserted that there needs to be more testimony from persons named or cited in Mr. Mueller’s report. He wants to hear from former White House counsel Don McGahn, he wants to hear from former Trump campaign operative Corey Lewandowski and others.
Hearing that, the heart sinks like a stone. More? More of this muddled, maddening prevarication, deflecting, boasting and accusatory blather?
At 8:33 a.m., when Representative Jerry Nadler banged his gavel and opened proceedings, the 74-year-old Mr. Mueller looked for all the world like a chap on a day pass from the old-age home where he enjoys dozing and occasionally waking up for sundowners. He was a little dazed, sometimes confused; in the partisan, often hysterical battleground that is now U.S. politics, you could almost hear the mass sigh of disappointment on the Democrat side.
On CNN, Jim Sciutto offered the opinion that, “Mueller was no made-for-TV guy.” Preach.
This was supposed to be a major TV moment. Coverage was at a fever pitch on Wednesday. All of the major U.S. broadcast networks had wall-to-wall coverage, and all of the major cable news networks did the same, adding pre, post and mid-testimony news and analysis.
By 10:05 am, at the time of the first break – which Mr. Mueller looked like he really, really needed – Fox News was gloating. Chris Wallace, possibly the least partisan of Fox News pundits, declared, “This has been a disaster for the Democrats and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller.” He was correct. Badgered by fast, aggressive questioning from such Republicans as Representative Doug Collins and Representative Ken Buck, Mr. Mueller was reeling. If this were a boxing match, the referee would have shut it down early. The Republicans were landing jabs at Mr. Mueller’s head and body continuously.
Of course it matters that Mr. Mueller confirmed that U.S. President Donald Trump was not exonerated, that his team was never going to indict Mr. Trump as a sitting president and that Mr. Trump could be charged with a crime after leaving office. Just as it matters that the Trump White House set out to discredit Mr. Mueller, that he was not seeking the FBI director job as Mr. Trump has claimed and that he confirmed there were several episodes of possible obstruction.
But the impact of all that is diluted. “The finding indicates that the President was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” Mr. Mueller said. That’s too vague, too lofty and too arcane for this arena.
Bound by his own adherence to the written report and only that, and bound by reminders of boundaries from the U.S. Attorney-General, Mr. Mueller was left with, “I can’t answer that” or “outside my purview” in response to countless questions. Worse, his hesitations and what looked like memory lapses suggested he did not have full dominion over his own report.
For two years, the Robert Mueller imagined by the public and thought-up by late-night talk-show hosts was a sort of combo of legal Rambo and Boy Scout superhero. When he finally emerged on Wednesday into the full glare of the TV cameras, he was an elderly man, full of integrity, but unsure of his footing on so many issues. In the contemporary political culture of ferocious verbal attacks and ceaseless evasions and dishonesty, his integrity and reticence seemed both innocent and feeble.
Nobody fears the feeble on TV or in politics as they play out on TV, social media and in these wicked times we live in. The mockery of Mr. Mueller that was unleashed on Fox News was, for once, accurate and a fair and balanced judgement.