When the long-awaited Mueller Report was finally released last spring, many Americans responded the way they often do to the opportunity to dive into literature: “TL;DR, I’ll just wait for the inevitable TV adaptation.”
Today, we finally got the TV adaptation. This morning, Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor charged with investigating the nature of Russia’s influence on the 2016 presidential election as well as whether President Trump obstructed justice, appeared before the House Judiciary Committee in what was part one of a two-part television event. Part two would come Wednesday afternoon, when Mueller was questioned by members of the House Intelligence Committee.
Mueller, a man with whom many Americans are best acquainted in the form of Robert De Niro on Saturday Night Live, had already become a TV character of sorts before he spoke a single word during Wednesday’s hearings. To many on the far right, he was the silver-haired witch hunter who wasted money trying to prove Donald Trump had committed criminal acts. To many on the far left, he was the potential savior who would prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Trump had tried to obstruct justice and engaged in potentially impeachable acts. As a television character, it turned out that Mueller was, not surprisingly, neither of these things. The former FBI director with a reputation for being a stickler for the rule of law may have been the protagonist of the limited series The Mueller Hearings, but he conducted himself more like a respectable side character. He was a Ken Cosgrove, not a Don Draper; a Samwell Tarly, not a Tyrion Lannister; the bland ex-boyfriend of Fleabag, not Fleabag or the Hot Priest.
Actually, with all due respect to Ken, Sam, and … whatever Fleabag’s former boyfriend’s name was — Harry! It was Harry! — Mueller exhibited less personality than every single one of them. He maintained, for most of both hearings, a face that was straight poker. On more than 155 occasions, according to the pundits on MSNBC as I’m writing this, he essentially pleaded the Fifth, refusing to answer questions posed by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress. He insisted that the text of his report should stand as the final word on the investigation into Trump’s possible collusion with Russia, rather than anything that occurred during either hearing.
Mueller functioned as neither a villain nor a hero nor an anti-hero but as the impartial, third-person narrator of a story. Guess what? That was his job. He told us the information we already knew, assuming we’d been paying close enough attention to this story all along. (Note: Many people have not been paying close attention to this story all along.) Even if we had, however, it was still useful to hear the narrator confirm the details.
“It is not what the report said,” Mueller responded when Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the chair of the Judiciary Committee, asked if President Trump was lying when he told the American people that the Mueller Report exonerated him.
“It is not a witch hunt,” Mueller said, very calmly, when Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), chair of the Intelligence Committee, asked whether his investigation was, in fact, the “Salem circa the 1690s” effort that Trump has often suggested.
He told both Democrats and Republicans at various points that he did not agree with the characterizations of certain events they had laid out based on his report.
“I am not making any judgments or offering opinions about the guilt or innocence in any pending case,” Mueller announced in his opening statements before both committees.
Offering no opinion is the last thing we expect from television in 2019. Whether we’re watching true crime, scripted prestige fare, cable news, or, yes, a Congressional hearing, we expect opinions, and we expect drama. We definitely expect it from courtroom scenes. Congressional hearings are not, to be clear, courts of law, but the dynamics of the dialogue in those settings are similar. People turning on their televisions on Wednesday expecting the equivalent of Nicole Kidman cornering Meryl Streep on the stand were no doubt disappointed.
Despite Mueller’s deliberate blankness, some members of Congress made a real effort to paint Mueller as a particular type of character. This was especially true of Republicans, particularly during the first hearing, when the questioning from that side of the aisle involved an absurd level of histrionics and hypotheticals. To use yet another Meryl Streep Big Little Lies analogy, many of these questions were basically differently worded versions of “Oh, you left that out, too.”
These holders of higher office often looked ridiculous. They didn’t care. They knew they were performing for the sake of The Mueller Report spinoffs, a.k.a. the coverage of the day’s events that will air all night long on Fox News.
Speaking of Fox: Congresswoman Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) called out Mueller for citing the Washington Post and New York Times in his report with far greater frequency than he mentioned Fox News. Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) suggested Mueller had hired partisan Hillary Clinton supporters to fill out his team, a charge Mueller denied in one of his more passionate moments. (I say passionate, but I still don’t think his body temperature rose by an 18th of a degree.) A man and a report that were specifically designed to be unbiased were, according to the Republicans, actually biased. [Screams with hands curled around her mouth: “The report is impartial!!!”]
Democrats also did their part to paint Mueller as a character. They repeatedly reminded everyone that he was the aboveboard symbol of integrity they needed him to be, the decorated military veteran and the G-man who had served admirably under presidents of both political stripes. If Mueller came across as any sort of character, it was more like a modern-day Sgt. Joe Friday from Dragnet: “Just the facts, ma’am … except for the facts that I can’t discuss because of ongoing investigations.” The country is so upside down that being Joe Friday has somehow become a liability.
Regardless of what anyone in Congress did, though, Mueller mostly came across as a blank slate. Again: That was the role he wanted to play and, arguably, the role he was obligated to play. Because the Office of Legal Counsel says a sitting president cannot be indicted — a fact Mueller mentioned more than once, though he also acknowledged that Trump could very well be indicted for obstructing justice after leaving office — Mueller refused to pass the kind of black-and-white, definitive judgment on the president, one way or another, that Americans crave.
Instead, he was the reliable narrator who refused to give the audience the tidy conclusion they desired. If you watched The Mueller Report, you probably saw what you wanted to see before you turned it on: either an anti-Trump investigator evading key questions, or a patriot authoritatively declaring that Trump has spun an array of untruths about the significance of what’s in those 450 pages.
In reality, the written Mueller Report, a.k.a. “the source material,” is filled with episodes as dramatic, disturbing, and sobering as anything you’ll find in any of the dramas up for an Emmy. But it was adapted into one of the most predictable TV shows of the year. The fact that it was so predictable and that, as Representative Schiff pointed out, the 2020 elections face the same threats we saw in 2016, made it one of the most alarming shows of the year, too.