Mueller hearing makes for less than compelling TV drama

Entertainment
Robert Mueller

Former special counsel Robert Mueller returns to the witness table following a break in his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 24, 2019. Mueller testified about his report on Russian election interference. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

NEW YORK (AP) — Robert Mueller’s report on Russian involvement in the 2016 election may have made for a gripping book, but his long-awaited testimony before Congress on Wednesday did not come alive as a television show.

Mueller’s appearance wasn’t news-free, and careful exchanges with committee chairmen Jerrold Nadler and Adam Schiff provided sound bites that Democrats were seeking. Mueller batted aside President Donald Trump’s contention that the special counsel investigation exonerated him and stated flatly, “it’s not a witch hunt.”

Yet there were many stretches where Mueller declined to engage and the phrases “let me refer you to the report” and “that’s beyond my purview” were commonplace. CBS’ Norah O’Donnell said the network counted 110 one-word answers by halftime of the testimony. Mueller, who turns 75 in two weeks, occasionally appeared hard of hearing and befuddled, leading some commentators to openly wonder if age had cost him a step.

“If the Democrats wanted America to see this as a movie, here we are at the end of this … wondering how many people actually stuck around to watch the finale,” ABC’s Cecilia Vega said.

Television ratings aren’t expected until Thursday. Broadcast and cable news networks all set aside regular schedules to carry the hearings, which lasted seven hours, including breaks.

There had certainly been signals of what was to come. Mueller was a reluctant witness, and had long said he would not respond to questions that forced him outside of the report’s conclusions. He had reportedly warned that he would not read from his report, and when one congresswoman asked him to read a passage, he told her to do it instead.

Still, he appeared unsure of the report’s content at times and unable — or unwilling — to keep up with what MSNBC’s Brian Williams called the heavily caffeinated questioning of some politicians.

Reviews weren’t kind: “There was no a-ha moment from this,” said CNN’s Evan Perez.

“On substance, Democrats got what they wanted,” NBC’s Chuck Todd said. “They got him to confirm that he didn’t make a charge because of the Justice Department memo. He confirmed that you can still indict him on these charges after he leaves office. And he seemed to confirm the idea that under any other circumstance, he likely would have filed some charges. On optics, this was a disaster.”

There was the potential for the testimony to be especially significant for Fox News Channel viewers, since the network’s opinion hosts had repeatedly derided Mueller over the course of the investigation and gave Trump frequent opportunities to wrongfully declare the report had cleared him. Unvarnished hearing coverage could give many Trump fans in the audience a chance to hear what they hadn’t before.

The reaction from Fox’s on-air personnel Wednesday: There’s nothing to worry about.

Fox’s Chris Wallace, during the first break in the Judiciary Committee hearing, said, “This has been a disaster for the Democrats and a disaster for the reputation of Robert Mueller.” The remark was transcribed and quickly tweeted by Trump.

Fox anchor Martha MacCallum said there had been “a lot of grasping at straws.

“I’m not sure we’re at any different position now in terms of … what Americans feel about it than we were before,” she said. “Democrats may want a do-over or they may just want to ignore this.”

There were moments that may resonate when viewers have more time to reflect. While Mueller often seemed to ignore Republican attacks, he gave an impassioned rebuttal to any assertions that he played politics in picking his staff. Prodded by Schiff at the end, he talked about expecting more from a president.

While the afternoon session ran more smoothly, Mueller’s appearance in the opening hours led some commentators to address the delicate question of whether he was physically and mentally up to the task.

“It’s clear to say that the years have taken a toll on the Bob Mueller that we used to see,” said NBC’s Pete Williams, “and I think that’s affected his ability to be as facile with answering the questions.”

Democratic Rep. Greg Stanton of Arizona tried to guide Mueller into illustrating highlights of his career by asking which president appointed Mueller U.S. attorney from Massachusetts. The counsel replied, “I think it was President Bush.” It was Reagan, Stanton corrected him.

“My mistake,” Mueller said.

Some outlets weren’t shy: The Drudge Report ran the headline “Dazed and Confused,” linking to a website that compiled a montage of times Mueller asked for a question to be repeated.

Others tiptoed: “This is delicate to say, but Mueller, whom I deeply respect, has not publicly testified before Congress in at least six years,” tweeted David Axelrod, a former aide to President Barack Obama. “And he does not appear as sharp as he was then.”

More sympathetically, MSNBC’s Joy Reid tweeted that people are criticizing Mueller for looking old and feeble. “But optically, that just makes the Republicans yelling at him look more absurd,” she wrote. “Mueller is quite definitive in his one-word answers.”

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