Political Reporters Dismiss Damaging Mueller Testimony As Optics Disaster

Nearly three months after the release of his 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, former special counsel Robert Mueller publicly testified that he had not exonerated President Trump of obstruction of justice last Wednesday.

During his almost seven hour testimony before two House committees, Mueller also said that Trump had “generally” been untruthful in his written responses to questions on “certain Russia-related topics.” Though he was unable to establish a criminal conspiracy, Mueller clarified that he did uncover evidence in support of one. And when asked about Trump’s encouragement of Wikileaks, the controversial organization that released stolen Democratic Party emails during the election, Mueller called Trump’s remarks “problematic.” In April 2017, former CIA director Mike Pompeo (now Trump’s Secretary of State) called Wikileaks a “hostile intelligence service.”

In another telling exchange with Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, Mueller also clarified that he did not pursue a subpoena for an in-person interview with Trump because he had to “balance” the time it would take to litigate a subpoena challenge versus the evidence his investigation had already uncovered. And when Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi asked about the FBI’s separate counterintelligence investigation into matters of blackmail and compromise, Mueller replied that “many elements” of the FBI were “currently” looking into the issue.

In spite of the damaging testimony, the conventional wisdom being amplified by political reporters on Wednesday evening largely dismissed Mueller’s confirmation of facts as a communications failure.

By midday, MSNBC host and Meet The Press moderator Chuck Todd had concluded that though the substance of Mueller’s testimony was harmful for Trump, the optics were a “disaster.” Todd was joined by several others who said that Mueller’s short and monotonous answers were a disappointment. In addition, because of last minute DOJ guidance that limited what he could speak about, Mueller declined to answer more than 200 questions, according to CNN.

Michael M. Grynbaum, a correspondent for The New York Times, wrote about Mueller’s “halting, donnish presence,” and lamented that he was “less accommodating” than James Comey, the former FBI head who was “more comfortable in the media glare” and delivered the “memorable and “much-quoted” one-liner ‘Lordy, I hope there are tapes.’  Meanwhile The Washington Post called Mueller’s testimony a “halting, faltering performance,” and in a separate article, the Post’s Dan Zak and Jada Yuan condensed the seven hours of testimony into an archetypal Washington metaphor of the “old man in a charcoal suit who didn’t want to talk.”

[Despite Intricacy of Concluded Mueller Probe, News Media Maintains Tradition of Oversimplification]

Conservative media allies of Trump pounced on Mueller’s hesitant display to blast him as “feeble,” “confused” and “lost.” Many, including Fox’s Brian Kilmeade, Mark Levin and The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft, who is known for propagating conspiracy theories, speculated that Mueller did not write the report or was largely unfamiliar with his investigation. 

In June, the Columbia Journalism Review announced the appointment of four public editors for CNN, MSNBC, The Times and The Post, writing that those organizations’ inability or unwillingness to maintain the vital position had to be rectified. On Wednesday, Maria Bustillos, the editor covering MSNBC, criticized Chuck Todd for his optics-based analysis, writing that Todd had “managed to demonstrate, with uncharacteristic brevity, his basic misunderstanding of the requirements of his job.”

“At a moment of particular gravity for the country, with the sitting president credibly accused of obstructing justice, and many of his campaign staff and associates under investigation and indictment, may I suggest that if you, a journalist, are bored with the politics of this—if you are demanding somehow to be entertained, right now—you’re not doing your job,” Bustillos wrote.

In response to criticism that political reporters were focusing on optics too much, Jake Sherman, the author of Politico’s Playbook, defended his colleagues by pointing out that Democratic lawmakers intended on using the hearing’s broadcast to bring the report to life.

That may have been their intention, but as The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote, journalists still should have devoted their reporting to the damaging facts from his report that Mueller confirmed on national television, and not the political savviness of the hearing. “Those journalists defending the fixation on ‘optics’ are effectively lecturing Democrats for failing to manipulate them as capably as the president does,” Serwer added.

Serwer also pointed out that the reason Democrats were facing an uphill battle on the communications front was because reporters had irresponsibly amplified Attorney General William Barr’s obfuscations of the Mueller report during a crucial two week period in early April between the announcement of the investigation’s conclusion and the release of the report. Aware that they had a duty to report on the facts of the investigation, reporters instead “panned Mueller’s performance, as though he were a singer whose voice had cracked in the middle of an aria,” Serwer wrote.

Political reporters also speculated that because Mueller’s testimony lacked any memorable made-for-TV moments, public support for impeachment had likely hit a ceiling at roughly 45 percent, according to a Gallup poll from earlier this month. Indeed, an ABC/Ipsos poll from last week found that 47 percent of viewers had no change in opinion.

However, in the days since Mueller’s testimony, 23 House Democrats have announced their support for an impeachment inquiry, including swing district lawmakers such as  Rep. Jennifer Wexton, Rep. Mike Levin and Rep. Jason Crow. And on Thursday, Rep. Ted Deutch became the 118th member of the Democratic caucus to announce his support, carrying the effort across the halfway mark.

With support growing each day, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel told the New York Daily News Thursday a formal inquiry was imminent and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s reluctance was not insurmountable. “I think more and more members are going to decide that the role of Congress right now, the proper role, is impeachment,” Engel said.

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