Over the past two years, in the absence of seeing the real Robert Mueller, maybe we created somebody who wasn’t there. We imagined a larger-than-life authority figure, part combat Marine, part Judge Hardy, part avenging Old Testament patriarch who would lead America out of its political desert.
Instead, in long, labored hours before two congressional committees on Wednesday, July 24, the special counsel investigating Russia’s invasion and the Trump campaign’s embrace of it turned out to be somebody else.
Mueller was a whispery 74-year old man who had to be coaxed out from behind a protective curtain and occasionally seemed a little doddering.
Maybe he didn’t want to testify because sometimes he seemed vaguely unfamiliar with material that bore his signature. Sometimes, given a direct quote from the report, he’d say, “If it’s from the report, I support it” – as though needing to make that verbal connection in the absence of actual familiarity.
He declined to answer questions 198 times by one count, or 206 by another. Sometimes he needed questions to be repeated. He said he couldn’t hear, but sometimes it felt like maybe he couldn’t concentrate.
President Trump, seizing on our national inclination to notice form over substance, called it “one of the worst performances in the history of our country.”
The usual Trump hyperbole, of course. As theater, though, the Mueller debut would have closed after one night.
But we’re dealing with more than theater here, aren’t we?
Could we please react to the Mueller hearings as an electorate instead of an audience?
Were we not paying attention when Rep. Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, listed some of the awful, indisputable facts?
Nadler laid out the “sweeping and systematic Russian attack … designed to benefit the Trump campaign,” the indictments and convictions of Trump intimates, the attempts to subvert Mueller’s investigation.
If this was too vague, Nadler then made it explicit: Trump ordered his White House counsel to have Mueller fired, “and then to lie and deny that it ever happened … and attempted to prevent witnesses from cooperating” with the investigation.
Were we not paying attention when Mueller, in his perfunctory way, agreed with every allegation Nadler laid out?
Were we not paying attention when Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, opened the afternoon hearing with all the passion that we once imagined Mueller might bring?
Schiff called the 2016 election “a story about disloyalty to country, about greed, and about lies,” and said the Trump people “knew that a foreign power was intervening in our election and welcomed it, built Russian meddling into their strategy and used it.”
And then, he started making it personal.
It was “about a campaign chairman” – named Paul Manafort – “indebted to pro-Russian interests who tried to use his position to clear his debts and make millions. About a national security advisor” – named Gen. Mike Flynn – “using his position to make money from still other foreign interests.
“And about a candidate” – named Donald Trump, just for the record – “trying to make more money than all of them, through a real estate project that, to him, was worth a fortune, hundreds of millions of dollars, and the realization of a lifelong ambition — a Trump Tower in the heart of Moscow. A candidate who, in fact, viewed his whole campaign as the greatest infomercial in history.”
Was Robert Mueller a disappointment to millions hoping his appearance would enlighten those denying the Trump national disgrace?
Was he a disappointment for all those who didn’t read his 448-page report but, in the current phrase, “didn’t read the book, but ought to enjoy the movie”?
But this isn’t a movie. It’s history. It’s not about performance. It’s about the awful truth – and how it’s still out there in the dark, waiting to attack us all over again.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).