Mueller Report: The Movie — Two thumbs down

Mueller Report: The Movie — Two thumbs down
© Getty Images

As a Senate staffer who orchestrated and/or advised on the structuring of close to a hundred congressional hearings, including high-profile oversight hearings, I consider myself somewhat qualified to critique yesterday’s House hearings on the Mueller report.

Included in my experience, I led a “SWAT Team” for the Senate and House Republican leadership in the mid-to-late 1990s that would travel from committee to committee showing staffers how to conduct a successful hearing. I had a check list. It somewhat resembled that of a movie director’s.

After vetting the objective, the evidence and the witnesses envisioned for each committee’s hearing, I would turn to the indispensable part, the part most staff were oblivious to — the theater. It was the part about how the message is conveyed to the audience. What is the harm that was done, who does it impact, who is your victim, who is the villain, and who will tell the story so that it flows?

ADVERTISEMENT

You could have the best evidence and witnesses in the world for a hearing, but it could be a tree falling in the forest with no one there to see it if the story isn’t told effectively.

That’s partially what we had at yesterday’s hearings. To be fair, the deck was stacked against the committees because they were severely hamstrung. Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrFive things to watch in Russia probe review Trump, GOP shift focus from alleged surveillance abuse to Durham Russia probe Trump: Giuliani to deliver report on Ukraine trip to Congress, Barr MORE crated Special Counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts House impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump MORE, confining him to the four walls of his report. And Mueller himself was a reluctant, sometimes weak witness, seemingly exhausted after two grinding years of intense investigating and prosecuting.

The result was a two-fold predicament: First, it turned the hearing structure upside-down. It was the members doing the testifying, not the witness. Mueller was merely confirming, denying or not commenting. The members had the burden of carrying their own narratives and drawing their own conclusions.

That, then, led to a second problem: Since the witness couldn’t guide the narrative, you had two disjointed narratives, one from each side of the dais. That created the effect of watching two movies simultaneously, but spliced together in five-minute segments, alternating between both sides. The only lifeline for viewers was either suffer through the fog or change the channel. Neither was a good choice for the committees. 

Also in fairness, I can’t remember in my 19 years in Congress when a couple of committees so used to engaging in food fights and bickering actually improved their comportment that much. They (mostly) checked their grandstanding at the ante room, and they minimized the hot air. Unfortunately, that also caused them to talk at a faster clip to get all their points in. The witness couldn’t keep up with the pace and often asked for a repeat of the question, thus wasting valuable time. 

ADVERTISEMENT

The prime example of that was the first round by Ranking Member Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing Top Republican: Democrats' weekend document dump shows impeachment inquiry is a 'farce' Trump, GOP shift focus from alleged surveillance abuse to Durham Russia probe MORE on the Judiciary Committee. He talked so fast Mueller had to ask him several times to repeat. A lot of viewers, myself included, are glad he did. Clearly, at least for that day, it was a new normal with kinks.

Reflecting in the aftermath, a slightly different approach might have yielded better results, though still under confining circumstances. In the context of the check list described above, reversing the order of the two committees might have produced a better outcome. If I had been advising the two committees’ collaborative efforts, I would have started with the Intelligence Committee. Here’s why:

A vetting of the hearing’s objective, evidence and witness would be moot; however, the theater/messaging part of the check list could be rendered more effective with a reversal. That would produce an easier narrative for audience consumption.

First, the Trump/Russia conspiracy part — Volume One — is the center of gravity for the whole investigation. Chronologically, it’s the place-setter for Volume Two. It is Volume One where we can answer the question, “What is the harm that was done?” There are hundreds of pages of Mueller’s report that can answer that question, all under the umbrella of a sweeping, systematic attack on our democracy by the Russians during the 2016 elections. And there’s more to come. Members of the committee articulated those issues quite convincingly.

Clearly, the Russian attack impacts our democracy, and the victims are the American people. Identifying and explaining these elements before identifying the villains sets the stage for revealing who the perpetrators are. Most of them are in Volume One.

Under this approach, all of these elements would be established by the time the Judiciary Committee would begin. It would be the backdrop for why all the villains were caught lying, and why the President would be obstructing. The common motive seems to be greed, money and/or business opportunities.

It would also be a good framework for knowing who the good guys are and why — such as former White House Counsel Don McGahn and others who refused to carry out the President’s obstructive endeavors.  It would be easier for the public to follow in such a disjointed, upside-down hearing format. And it would set a better context for when that committee walked the viewers through the elements of the obstruction endeavors, which was the heart of their strategy.

Having viewed Special Counsel Mueller’s performance, it is clear that he was more animated and forceful during the Intelligence Committee hearing, as any past or present FBI official would in defense of the nation under a foreign attack. Testifying to that committee first might have helped him hit his stride quicker. All of this is in 20-20 hindsight, of course, but there are always lessons to be learned to improve the process as it goes forward.

A common metaphor used by some members of the committees to describe their goal was to turn Mueller’s 448-page book into a movie. It is true that successful hearings emulate successful movies. A wag might suggest, though, that if this was their idea of a movie, they might want to change directors, or at least get a new check list.

Kris Kolesnik is a 34-year veteran of federal government oversight. He spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the associate inspector general for external affairs.