There is at least some reason to believe that this could happen. On May 29, Mueller discussed his findings in the same format in which Barr had delivered his interpretation of them: on camera. In a brief press conference, Mueller did not say anything beyond what was in his report, instead emphasizing that Trump had not, in fact, been exonerated, and that if his office “had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” Mueller also said that “charging the president with a crime was … not an option we could consider,” refuting Barr’s claim that this Justice Department policy had not factored into Mueller’s decision not to recommend charges.
And yet it wasn’t until then—hearing Mueller simply speak what his team had written long ago—that many Democrats decided there was sufficient reason to call for Trump’s impeachment. “It’s time for Congress to begin impeachment hearings and follow the facts,” Senator Kristen Gillibrand of New York said shortly after the press conference. Senator Kamala Harris of California argued that what Mueller “basically did was return an impeachment referral. Now it is up to Congress to hold this president accountable. We need to start impeachment proceedings. It’s our constitutional obligation.” Representative Seth Moulton of Massachusetts tweeted that impeachment hearings “should begin tomorrow.”
Read: Impeachment is the song of the summer
The sudden race to impeach emblematized the power of the visual over the textual in politics. It is not unreasonable to suspect, then, that support for impeachment among Democratic lawmakers, candidates, and their followers could grow even more in the aftermath of Mueller’s testimony. As the Democratic-campaign official put it: “To have Mueller saying on TV, ‘Look, I can’t rule out that the president colluded,’ or ‘Here are 10 instances where the president or his staff tried to obstruct my investigation’—we haven’t really had that yet, and that could be powerful.”
Still, less than two months have passed since Mueller’s press conference, and polling shows that there has been no meaningful shift in support for impeachment. The number, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, remains where it was in April, at 37 percent. (This comes after a poll the Post conducted in February, when 61 to 65 percent of Americans said they would support impeachment if Mueller concluded that Trump had colluded with Russia or obstructed justice.)
Tomorrow, Democrats can try to capitalize on the power of television to reclaim the narrative of the Mueller report. But their engagement with said narrative will always be secondary in this way, a fervent attempt to recast that which has already been set.
The stability of Barr’s narrative is such that not even Trump has been able to shake it, though he has certainly tried. The president has attacked Mueller and his colleagues, calling them “Angry Democrats” and “true Trump haters,” and has deemed the report itself a “total hit job,” all after Barr seeded the notion that the report was entirely exculpatory for Trump. It’s the kind of talk that might cause one to look more deeply at Mueller’s findings, this quick shift from being delighted by them to seeming angered by them.
But Cathy Garnaat’s words that night in Michigan show that amid all the striving, whether from Democrats or Trump, to show Mueller’s report in a new light, no catchphrase has caught hold quite like one: “Total exoneration.”