Back in May, Representative Justin Amash of Michigan held a town hall to defend his position as the lone Republican calling for impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Amash explained to voters that he’d arrived at this position after reading Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice by the president. But for at least one voter, that explanation was more like revelation: As far as she was aware, Trump had been totally exonerated.
“I was surprised to hear there was anything negative in the Mueller report at all about President Trump. I hadn’t heard that before,” Cathy Garnaat, a Republican who supported Amash and Trump, told NBC that night. “I’ve mainly listened to conservative news and I hadn’t heard anything negative about that report, and President Trump has been exonerated.”
Garnaat’s words are worth considering ahead of tomorrow morning, when Mueller is scheduled to testify publicly before the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee. Her words represent a perception gap distilled, a tidy summary of how many Americans navigated the space between commentary on the Mueller report and the report itself. They underscore just how successfully Attorney General William Barr exploited that space, harnessing the power of television to set the narrative of the report, knowing most people were unlikely to read it themselves. And they affirm the challenge Democrats face tomorrow in their attempt to make Mueller’s words resonate when, in an era defined by the laws of entertainment, they may well have missed their moment.
“It was genius. They had a time advantage that no one else was going to have, and they capitalized on it,” one Democratic strategist told me, who like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely. “Mueller is not going to change anything.”
That prediction was echoed by the half-dozen Democratic officials and strategists I spoke with yesterday. The sources pointed to two days this spring as the most trenchant obstacles to shifting public opinion on Mueller’s findings. On March 24, Barr issued his four-page summary that there was insufficient evidence to charge Trump or his staff for colluding with the Russian government or obstructing justice. And on April 18, he held a televised press conference to reiterate that summary hours before the release of the report. “It doesn’t matter how many times it’s been refuted,” a Democratic-presidential-campaign official told me. “What matters is that first interpretation of ‘No collusion, no obstruction,’ and people have kind of tuned out since.”
Indeed, it was not so much what Barr said those days as it was that he was the first to say it. In the Trump era, most stories have a day- or even an hour-long shelf life, meaning the immediate spin on the most crucial of events is often the one most likely to stick. Mueller wrote that he could not establish evidence of conspiracy or collusion, and could not reach a decision on the matter of obstruction, instead laying out instances in which Trump and his staff appeared to try to hamper the investigation. (Some have interpreted this to mean Mueller was punting the matter to Congress.) But as the Democratic-campaign official told me, it was futile to expect people to parse Mueller’s actual findings once the frenzy around Barr’s interpretation had passed. Ultimately, the source said, it was “a press conference” with a tidy conclusion “versus a 400-plus-page legal document that required much more explanation.”
“It was a great piece of communications work on Barr’s part,” a former White House official told me. “Even if a lot of the coverage was critical, what mattered was that it was ad nauseam, and that Barr’s message and sound bites got out.”
“In terms of playing into the conservative echo chamber, it immediately gave them a lot of content to work with,” the former official said, pointing to outlets such as Fox News, Breitbart News, and the Daily Caller. “A lot of the job in Trumpworld is just giving our allies content to work with.”
On Monday, Representative Ro Khanna of California put it bluntly when he told Axios that the “success” of Mueller’s testimony “will be in the TV ratings.”
“The more Americans that watch,” he said, “the more successful it is.” It was an admission that Democrats don’t necessarily expect Mueller to make news, that the metric of a good hearing will not be whether the committee members themselves learn something new. Rather, they expect Mueller to say what he’s always said. The hope is that this time, more people will hear him.
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.”
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.”