‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Generally True’: Interpreting Robert Mueller

GELFAND’S WORLD--You had to be a total political junkie to sit through the whole thing. Even I missed a few minutes of the Mueller hearings at the beginning by not being up and awake at 5:30 AM.

A couple of immediate comments: The strategy used by the Democrats will be obvious to some people, but it appears to be lost on all the naysayers who graded Mueller’s performance as if he were a first-time contender on America’s Got Talent. (Chris Wallace, who was on Stephen Colbert after the hearings was one such “journalist” who might as well have been writing reviews for second line plays at the Barstow Fringe.) 

The Democrats – now in control of the House of Representatives – had something of a quandary. If they didn’t bring in Robert Mueller to testify, then the Republicans would get away with presenting the Mueller report as if it were a total exoneration of the president. That’s pretty much what the president has been claiming. If they could convince Mueller to appear, it was going to be according to his rules. Sure, they could brandish their subpoenas, but a lawyer of his experience, backed by the Department of Justice -- if he were to be a truly hostile witness -- wouldn’t be to their advantage. So, they negotiated the rules of engagement with him (one possibility for why it took so long to get this going) and planned their tactics. 

Facing the situation we saw play out on Wednesday morning, the Dems apparently chose a long-term strategy, knowing full well that they weren’t going to have the sort of dramatic short-term victory that a lot of people had been hoping for. The strategy was simple – establish their case for the existence of Russian interference and presidential obstruction, toss in a dash of collusion based on the Trump Tower meeting, and repeat endlessly. Well, if not endlessly, at least for six hours. They were like prosecutors laying the groundwork on the first day of a seven month case. You’ve got to be thinking from day one about what you are going to say in the closing argument. The closing argument will take place in November, 2020. 

It’s obvious that pretty much every congressperson had prepared and practiced a set of talking points. Many of them were obviously reading off of lists. Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee was the best at this, by far. But I have to wonder whether he had some sort of advance agreement with Mueller, because the final set of questions were stunning and dramatic. Schiff was equally competent in his opening remarks, where he connected Trump’s conduct with failure to be loyal to the nation. 

What did we finally see? Lots of individual questions, some agreeable to the witness and some that made for mini-battles. When they look at the favorable sorts of questions, Democratic strategists will be able to find enough 20 and 30 second snips to make for 50 political ads to be run on the nation’s televisions. 

Quite a few people reacted to these hearings the way they reacted to Obama’s first debate in his reelection campaign of 2012. It was, to them, an unmitigated disaster. I can remember how Andrew Sullivan was nearly inconsolable. I have a few thoughts to offer them. 

(1) The sky isn’t falling, the republic is not doomed, and the Republicans took some significant hits along the way. That’s because there were too many clear affirmative answers on Mueller’s part to pointed questions about Trump’s culpability and behavior. (2) For sure, Mueller sometimes looked sleepy or forgetful or maybe having a senior moment. You had to wonder whether maybe he doesn’t remember all those names, all the details, or the particular dates of specific events (3) The Republicans in the House of Representatives took partisanship to a new and despicable level by refusing even to acknowledge the Russian interference in the election (with one exception to be sure). 

One question that isn’t getting a lot of action – did the Russians also play a part in getting Trump the nomination? That, it seems to me, would be more off-putting to a lot of Republicans than the fact that the Russians also helped beat Hillary. I wonder why the Democrats and the journalists aren’t going into this possibility. It’s certainly a likelihood if you give the Steele Dossier any credibility (see below). 

Here are the two opposing sides as they appeared in contrast: 

Democrats: Trump did bad things including a lot of obstruction of justice, a serious crime. The Russians sided with Trump and affected the outcome of the election. Trump’s campaign (including his children) cooperated with the Russian attacks on our system. 

Republicans: The investigation was improperly motivated to begin with (the Steele Dossier), the country is tired of this after two and a half years, the President did nothing wrong, and the Democrats are bringing all this back as a last gasp to steal the next election. 

Let me remind you of one point. The Democrats had these hearings more than two and a half years after the 2016 election for one simple reason. The Republicans, having control over congress the past two years, stonewalled every attempt at a legitimate inquiry. Finally, under Democratic control, we have a chance for a more open inquiry, and the Republicans don’t like it. Timeliness isn’t a legitimate critique because the Republicans are responsible for the delay. 

A few more comments in no particular order . . . 

Devin Nunes was even worse than I remembered him. 

The Steele Dossier: Republicans took great joy in continually mentioning this, but without quite describing who Steele is, or what’s in the so-called dossier. For those who are curious, I invite you to read the extensive notes in Wikipedia. For anyone else, here is what it is about. Before Trump locked up the nomination, one conservative news source hired a company called Fusion GPS to do some opposition research on him. After Trump was the clear nominee, that news source disengaged with the company. Fusion GPS then approached the Democrats and offered their services. When the Dems said OK, this company hired Steele, a former MI6 (British spy agency – think James Bond’s director M) to look into Trump. Steele came up with a lot of rumored bad stuff, suggesting Trump had a longstanding guilty link to the Russians, that they may have had incriminating material on him, and so forth. Steele eventually went to the FBI and British intelligence because the stories were so alarming. He eventually took the material to John McCain after the election. Whether the Democrats even knew about Steele or his findings at the time remains murky at best. 

The Republican congressmen made a big deal about the Steele dossier, as the collected reports are called, but they didn’t mention one thing about it – much of what’s in the Steele dossier has been either validated or partially validated. We know about Trump’s continuing negotiations with the Russians for his Trump Tower deal, for example. Very little has been formally disproved. But several Republicans continued to refer to the Steele Dossier as if it were some loathsome bacterial ailment rather than an early clue to Trump’s perfidy. 

Trump and the Republicans are crowing that the Mueller hearings came to nothing and demonstrated his innocence. That’s what Trump does. It is increasingly what the rest of them do, even if the congress is not claiming that the crowd at Trump’s inauguration was the biggest in history. Trump-speak, now increasingly indulged in by his congressmen, has nothing to do with reality or truth. 

Did these hearings do any damage to Trump’s reelection chances or to Republican chances in the congress? That’s what Wednesday’s initiation of the long strategy has to be about. Is it working? It’s a little early to say, because Mueller did seem a bit uncertain and slow on the uptake some of the time. For example, as many people have remarked, his numerous requests to repeat the question didn’t do his credibility any good. I wondered if he’s maybe a little hard of hearing. The Republicans can splice together Mueller’s hesitations and worst answers and show it at political rallies. 

But the Democrats have a counter-strategy available: They can take Mueller’s best answers and splice them into 50 short television spots. In each one, start with the question that incriminates Trump and follow with Mueller’s one-word answer of Yes or No. Blanket the airwaves with those spots. Then do the same sort of thing using radio ads. Invest $60 million in the 2020 campaign starting now. 

The fight here, as always, is to get in the first blow in order to prevent the other side from establishing the terms of debate. Trump has already claimed that Wednesday was a good day for him. It’s up to the Democrats to start running those ads asap in order to establish Trump’s culpability. 

Another thought: I wonder if the Democrats have been OK in going slow on the Mueller hearings in order to have them hit the public eye during the newly started presidential race. The idea here is that first we have Mueller, then the House does something on Trump’s taxes, then something on how he takes money from foreign governments through his hotels and country clubs, and so forth. 

The idea is simple and obvious. Roll out the bad stuff on Trump at the moment when independent voters are starting to think about election day 2020. Let them feel the distaste that so many of the rest of us have been feeling since before the 2016 election. For those who have been feeling that distaste all along, keep reminding them. 

Afterword: The damning testimony provided by Mueller is summarized nicely by Dan Friedman in a MotherJones story


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net)