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Volokh Conspiracy

Mueller Hearings Another Summer Movie Disappointment

That did not quite go as expected


"Not everybody will read the book, but people will watch the movie," said a Democratic staff member on the Judiciary Committee, who requested anonymity to discuss preparations for the hearing.

Oops. Turns out adapting a book into a movie is hard.

In calling Special Counsel Robert Mueller to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, the Democrats had one job, but they could not quite figure out what that one job was going to be and they could not manage to do it. Ostensibly, the purpose of Mueller's testimony was to focus the public's attention on the findings of the Mueller report and thereby stoke the outrage that had failed to manifest when the written report was released. In principle, this is a reasonable goal since it is hard to grab the attention of average voters and deliver to those voters some complicated information about the doings of government officials. Public testimony might cut through the clutter.

If the Democrats wanted to make a movie, they did a pretty poor job of it. Giving in to the political interests of individual politicians, the committee divided its time up among the many members of the committee so that everyone could get a participation trophy. Since each member had very little time with Mueller, they had no interest in giving Mueller any time to develop lengthy answers to questions. There was less speechifying than often dominates hearings, but the questions tended to a less-than-edifying "yes or no" form that only managed to put things on the record that were already on the record. If the goal is to tell a coherent story about what happened in the months leading up to the election and the months after the inauguration, fragmenting the hearing into a multitude of short, disconnected exchanges is not going to advance that goal.

For some reason, the members thought it would be a good idea to ask rapid fire questions (the Intelligence Committee did a better job on this in the afternoon). There are circumstances where asking as many questions as possible in a limited time might be a useful thing to do, but this wasn't one of them. If the goal is to highlight, simplify and dramatize the damning details of a report that the general public has not read, speeding through a string of complex yes-or-no questions is not going to advance that goal.

Democrats hoped that Mueller would take the public stage and act more like former FBI Director James Comey. Mueller was no Comey, and Democrats should have known better. Mueller had done all that he could to signal to Congress that he would not be a dynamic witness at a public hearing, and legislators pressed on. Mueller had little interest in going beyond what had already been stated in the report, and he was not inclined to provide an oral summary for the television cameras. Mueller acted liked the cautious lawyer that he had been advertised to be, but the Democrats wanted and needed a more animated, less guarded partisan.

The Mueller hearing was another summer movie flop, and now Democrats will have to figure out whether and how to try to reboot the franchise.