Democrats missed their last opportunity to move public opinion.
The long-anticipated Congressional hearings featuring Robert Mueller will not convince more Americans that Democrats should move forward on impeachment. Democrats missed their last opportunity to move public opinion.
During the Judiciary Committee hearing, the Democrats’ first problem was that Mueller turned out not to be a very good witness. Repeatedly asking members to repeat their questions, he seemed old and unfamiliar with his own report. Even when they tried to defend his integrity by pointing out a Republican president originally named him as a U.S. Attorney, he got the president who appointed him wrong (he said it was President George H.W. Bush; it was Reagan).
As he said he would, he stuck to his report, did not discuss the underlying evidence, and did not discuss anything outside of the four corners of his report. As a result, he neither defended himself against accusations of bias from Republicans nor supported the conclusions of the Democrats.
The second thing they did wrong was read his own report back to him instead of asking him to read sections of the report himself. They asked him to a number of times, but he demurred.
Yet he was the witness; if they wanted him to read his report, they could have insisted he do so. The American public needed to hear his words in his voice, looking into the camera, reading slowly and clearly the instances of obstruction he laid out in his report.
The Democrats did well emphasizing and elaborating on the episodes of alleged obstruction outlined in the report. That is the basis for impeachment Mueller’s report left open for Democrats. They also wisely took advantage of having more Members on the Committee than the Republicans, effectively using the time of their last three Members as a closing argument of sorts.
Yet they made no effort to rebut what they surely should have known were going to be attempts by Republicans to discredit Mueller and his report until the last 10 minutes of the hearing. Even then, they left that job to a single Democratic Member of the Committee after hours of hammering by Republicans.
They had a script based on what they wanted to get out of the hearing regardless of what Republicans said, and they stuck to it. That gave them no chance to be nimble and react to Republican questions they should have anticipated.
Republicans’ questions were easy to see coming because they were the same as the talking points they have been using since the report came out. Yet because Democrats’ agenda was so rigid, scripted and focused exclusively on pressing the issue of obstruction, they did not give Mueller a chance to publicly and forcefully push back on inaccurate assertions of bias or the legitimacy of the investigation itself.
Instead, Democrats and Mueller mostly let those assertions stand. There are twenty-four Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, and not one of them asked, simply, “Director Mueller, would you describe your team as a bunch of angry Democrats, as the President has?”
They did not emphasize Mueller’s relieving Peter Strzok of his duties when evidence of bias arose. They did not make clear that the evidence of the Trump campaign’s interactions with Russia demanded the Special Counsel’s appointment; that even if there was no fire, there was definitely a lot of smoke.
Only at the end of the Judiciary Committee hearing, did Mueller finally defend the integrity of his staff. Yet even that defense landed flat because Republicans continued to press the case of bias and Democrats ignored the attack – they let those accusations hang in the air as an unpopped bubble.
Make no mistake, it was not, and has not been, a good look for the Republicans to attack the credibility of a highly decorated and respected attorney, veteran, and former FBI Director. They have decided that it is their job to defend indefensible actions by tarnishing the reputations of Mueller and a group of attorneys that have spent their careers putting their personal political beliefs aside in pursuit of justice.
As a matter of morality, this may be unseemly. As a matter of politics, combined with Democrats ignoring these attacks, it was extremely successful.
Republicans effectively used the back-and-forth format of Congressional hearings and Mueller’s reticence to respond to questions with anything beyond what was in the report to muddy the waters. Fox News will replay Republicans’ lines of questioning and continue to discredit Mueller and his team. MSNBC will play Democrats’ hammering on the President’s attempts to obstruct the investigation on a never-ending loop. In other words, the needle will not have moved as a result of today’s hearing.