Not since Chauncey Gardiner has Washington, D.C., so overestimated a figure. Robert Swan (Song) Mueller exhibited a Being There quality on Wednesday.
Gardiner and Mueller, two creatures of the capital, long served as blank screens upon which everybody projected sundry delusions. But the same swamp things that wanted to put Gardiner in the presidency now seek to put Mueller out to pasture.
A Geraldo-opening-Al-Capone’s-vault vibe reverberated through the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees on Wednesday. Cable news played up Mueller as a white knight saving America from Donald Trump. As it turned out, the special counsel, so eager to interrogate others, performed poorly when transitioning from interrogator to interrogated.
When Democrat Greg Stanton mixed This Is Your Life with Jeopardy in asking a series of softball queries with known answers about Mueller’s résumé, he unexpectedly tripped up the special counsel who answered wrong on the president responsible for appointing him acting U.S. attorney for Massachusetts. When Republican Doug Collins described collusion and conspiracy as “essentially synonymous” terms, Mueller responded with a firm “No” — and then Collins quoted from Mueller’s own report characterizing the two terms as “largely synonymous.” Republican Steve Chabot brought up Fusion GPS — the shadowy firm employed by the Clinton campaign to help launder contributions to a foreign spy digging up dirt, real and imagined, on Donald Trump — the special counsel amazingly responded: “I am not familiar with, with that.” Democrats Ted Lieu coaxed Mueller into claiming that his refusal to recommend indicting the president stemmed from Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel rules preventing such legal action against a sitting president. Upon returning to testify to the Intelligence Committee, Mueller retracted this earlier claim. He conceded that “we did not reach a determination as to whether the president committed a crime.”
More so than on substance, Mueller failed in style. He offered mumbling, monosyllabic answers when he provided answers at all. Here, Judiciary Chairman Adam Schiff asked, “Could you speak into the mic?” There, Mueller asked, “Could you repeat the question?” It went on, painfully, like this for hours.
This man held the Trump presidency hostage for 678 days?
Mueller’s lack of familiarity with his own report, listlessness, and ignorance of very basic players in the scandal such as Fusion GPS reinforced a long-held fear that partisans used the respected lawman as a Trojan Horse to provide cover for the politicization of a legal inquiry. Mueller’s staff included Trump hater Peter Strzok (for a time) and lawyers — 13 registered Democrats and zero registered Republicans — who gave $23 to Democrats for every $1 they gave Republicans.
Perhaps more so than Mueller, those projecting their fantasies upon him evoke Chauncey Gardiner. “I like to watch TV,” Gardiner explained. Mueller’s fan club does, too. And in watching, and neglecting to read his report (“I can’t read,” Gardiner also explained), they anticipated his testimony as the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency. What gave them this idea? From Watching TV, where talking heads ginned up high expectations for higher ratings, and certainly not from reading the report, which found no evidence of collusion and did not recommend indictments on obstruction.
“There’s something about him that I can trust,” Melvyn Douglas’s Ben Rand explains about Chauncey. “He makes me feel good.” Many, before Wednesday, reacted to Robert Mueller that way. The Peter Sellers-played character, according to admirers, speaks eight languages, holds medical and law degrees, and likely served as a clandestine agent. The media fawns over Gardiner despite him saying little if anything at all. He walks on water. Sound familiar?
Whereas Gardiner could, to great delight, watch Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood, The Gong Show, the animated film Basketball Jones, exercise programs, and even commercials, few took such pleasure in Mueller’s performance on their small screens. The Associated Press reported that “his long-awaited testimony before Congress on Wednesday did not come alive as a television show.” In the interpretive fashion of Being There, CNN.com asked, “Why won’t Mueller say what he really thinks?” NBC’s Chuck Todd opined, “On optics, this was a disaster.”
For two years, television made the enigmatic and mostly mute Mueller. In seven hours, television unmade him.
Robert Mueller began his performance walking on water. Chauncey Gardiner ended his by walking on water. Being there matters, but more so does being there at the right time. Robert Mueller seemed somewhere else this week.