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Mueller’s testimony matters even if he doesn’t say anything new

It’s political theater, but political theater is a big deal.

FBI Director Robert Mueller arrives to testify before the Senate Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Robert Mueller is unlikely to say much that’s genuinely new in his Wednesday testimony before Congress. He and his team already assembled a report on their investigation and its conclusions that’s more than 400 pages long, and if he had more to say on the subject, he would have written a longer report.

The most likely outcome is that the former special counsel will simply go over ground that’s already well understood to careful readers of his report. And it’s possible on those grounds to dismiss the whole affair of his testimony as mere political theater. But that would be a mistake. There’s a reason plays are performed, after all, even though you hardly need to go through the fuss of casting actors and designing sets to understand the plot of Hamlet.

In the Trump era, facts are not a given, even when printed in black and white. We saw that already during Mueller’s one public statement on the investigation — a statement that contradicted repeated clear, vivid public statements from the president of the United States, the US attorney general, and congressional Republicans. The president himself confirmed the significance of Mueller’s public statement by immediately logging on to Twitter to mischaracterize it by saying that “the case is closed.”

Mueller said, for example, that charging Trump with obstruction of justice was not an option available to him or his team because they were bound by years-old Justice Department guidance holding that the president cannot be indicted.

But Mueller saying it live on camera made a difference. He publicly challenged the administration’s interpretation of events and challenged Congress to face the fact that he did not have limitless powers. Doing it again, live and on television over an extended period of time, can make a real difference in public understanding.

The revolution will not be read in longform

The Mueller report is long, describes many different things, and of course did not prove the kind of baroque Trump-Russia conspiracy that some of the president’s critics had been hoping to demonstrate. But it also does contradict the line from the White House in four critical respects:

  1. Russian interference in the 2016 campaign was real, and not fake news made up by Democrats to excuse their tactical errors, as Trump and his allies have claimed.
  2. There was “insufficient evidence” to charge Americans with involvement in a criminal conspiracy — an important legal conclusion but not an exoneration.
  3. Trump was not cleared of potential obstruction of justice charges. If he had been cleared, the report would have said so.
  4. Trump was also not charged with obstruction of justice because DOJ policy prohibits bringing criminal charges (even in the form of sealed indictments) against a sitting president.

It’s difficult, of course, not to sympathize with Mueller’s view that having written this all down clearly in a report and then said it publicly should mean he shouldn’t have to say it again before Congress.

But the upshot of Mueller’s legal analysis is that holding a president accountable is fundamentally a political process. Congress might do it through impeachment — with Congress’s approach to that constrained by public opinion — or the public might do it on Election Day. But either way, it’s politics. And in politics, drama matters. There’s a reason candidates hold rallies, and debates are televised, and we don’t just expect people to look up politicians’ policy ideas on their websites.

By the same token, while the public certainly could read the entire Mueller report for themselves and reach their own conclusions, we know that won’t happen. But many people will watch Mueller on television. And an even larger number will see select clips from his testimony rebroadcast on the news or transmitted over social media. They will hear, perhaps for the first time, about the president’s many efforts to quash an investigation into serious crimes that benefited him and about the legal doctrine that prevents the special counsel from charging him with a crime on that basis. It mostly won’t be genuinely “new” information, but congressional testimony rarely is. What will be new is who sees it, and how.