Robert Mueller’s Testimony Before House Democrats Is a Game of Chicken Between Chickens

Special counsel Robert Mueller makes his statement almost a month after the Mueller report's publication in Washington on May 29.
Special counsel Robert Mueller in Washington on May 29. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Robert Mueller is testifying Wednesday before the House Intelligence Committee and House Judiciary Committee in what may just be the most important television moment of Donald Trump’s presidency. There will be no more real-time, high-stakes, epic distillation of months and years of corruption than Mueller’s testimony, in which he will presumably grimly repeat what he has already laid out before: the contours of his 448-page report on Russian efforts to manipulate the 2016 election, and Donald Trump’s efforts to obstruct the Department of Justice’s efforts to investigate that interference campaign and Donald Trump.

There has been a stomach-churning amount of nastiness thrown around before Mueller is even sworn in, including an eleventh-hour attempt by the White House to limit the scope of his testimony, and his own Tuesday request to have his right-hand aide, Aaron Zebley, sworn in with him as a witness before the Judiciary Committee. Republicans will work doubly hard to discredit him with deep state conspiracy theories, and Democrats will be content to land a few made-for-TV punches. Mueller himself really doesn’t want to be there, while Democrats are hoping he’ll bail them out of their impeachment holding pattern. Wednesday’s testimony will be a standoff between two institutions that each think the other institution should leap into action. It’s a game of chicken between, er, chickens.

As noted, even before William Barr’s DOJ sent word that the former special counsel would not be allowed to testify about anything outside the four corners of the report, Mueller was 100 percent clear that he had no interest in doing anything else. His goal, perfectly aligned with congressional Republicans and the Justice Department (aka Trump’s divorce lawyers), is to avoid precisely the “public spectacle” House Democrats are attempting to put on. To the extent they hope this testimony brings all of the punch of months of Watergate hearings with dozens of witnesses in a mere few hours with one man (or two), shaking up political opinion like a sparkly Watergate snow globe, Mueller is pushing for the opposite. On May 29, when he reluctantly appeared to read a prepared statement asking everyone to, in effect, leave him the hell alone, he warned against just this move:

“There has been discussion about an appearance before Congress. Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis and the reasons for the decisions we made. We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself. And the report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”

House Democrats, especially those desperate to begin impeachment proceedings that could afford us many more hours of precisely this type of public spectacle, need exactly what Mueller, the White House, the DOJ, and House Republicans hope to deny them: a summer blockbuster filled with exploding revelations of Trump’s wrongdoing and helicopter crashes of his unfitness. The problem is essentially still the same one we faced when the Mueller report was released: Most everything in that report was already known to us. We knew about Russian interference, we knew about Trump’s lies about his involvement with Russia, we knew about the multiple prior indictments of Trump 2016 campaign officials, we knew why Trump had fired James Comey, and we knew he had tried to fire Mueller. It had already been unrolling in the press for months. Nearly every crucial element of the report already happened in plain sight; Mueller just fact-checked and amassed them into a 448-page report.

Our numbness to the misconduct isn’t Mueller’s problem. It certainly isn’t Mueller’s fault that the attorney general distorted and mischaracterized those 448 pages and let that lie stand for weeks before the full report could be released. Nor is it Mueller’s fault that the president has continued to crow “no collusion, no obstruction” for weeks before and after the report could be assessed in full. It also isn’t Mueller’s fault that Fox News carries the distortions down from Mt. Justice Department on a nightly basis, and millions of Americans claim that they know what is in the report, even as they have no idea at all. And it certainly wasn’t Mueller’s fault that—notwithstanding the efforts to turn it into a pop graphic novel, or dramatic Hollywood theater, or multiple popular audiobooks—in the end, almost nobody read the thing.

Somehow, in a deep misjudgment of the moment, Mueller released Moby Dick to a country that couldn’t quite be bothered to open a can of tuna. He asked us to read the report, and he trusted government officials and purveyors of the news to offer truthful summaries. Mueller cares deeply about democracy and the rule of law. But he has never been a man who would respond with anger or frustration in order to direct our attention toward himself. He believes he has done his job. He also believes the House of Representatives needs to do its constitutionally assigned job. He told us this, literally, in his report.

House Democrats know all this. That’s why they may well content themselves to have him read excerpts from his own report dully into the record, even though he will have none of the flair or elan of John Lithgow doing the same. It will be like a cover of k.d. lang’s cover of Rufus Wainwright’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, except actually it will be Mueller doing a cover of himself, in the hopes that people will tune in to the live made-for-TV version.

“We want Robert Mueller to bring it to life,” Adam Schiff, the chair of the Intelligence Committee, said on CBS News’ Face the Nation on Sunday. Or as a Democratic aide told NBC’s Alex Moe, House Democrats are anticipating that “not everybody is reading the book”—referring to Mueller’s report—“but people will watch the movie.” Which is a tiny bit hilarious if you watched Mueller’s press conference a few weeks back. Only an idiot would cast Mueller to play himself in the film. But Mueller’s version is all we have. His principal interest at this moment—beyond protecting his own reputation for sobriety and care and that of his team and its work product—will be to take down the temperature and depoliticize that which is fundamentally and unavoidably political now.

Ultimately, there are two types of people who would be a good-faith audience for Wednesday’s performance: The first includes those who never needed to read the Mueller report because they knew two years earlier that Russia had interfered with the election and that Trump was trying to stymie the probe because he admitted it on-air to Lester Holt. The second is the group of people who had waited patiently for the Mueller report to tell them what to make of those two facts, but did not find their questions answered in the press coverage. Will those people even tune in Wednesday, though? Hard to know. Will anything about the quiet, severe, and flat performance of Robert Mueller, reading snippets of his findings into the record, provide conclusive proof of anything for anyone? It seems doubtful. Will he answer the many excellent meta questions lawyers have crafted to force him to deliver actual substance? Nah.

One thing is clear, though: Bob Mueller believes his work speaks for itself and always has. He believes that we already know what he already told us. He told the House of Representatives to handle it. They won’t or can’t. What happens Wednesday will be a live-action repeat of the same film that has happened for half a year: a movie about mutual paralysis, played for monster ratings that will never come.