President Trump on the South Lawn at the White House on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

After totally unplugging and being out of the country for 23 days, watching President Trump’s gloat-o-rama in the wake of former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s halting testimony on Wednesday was like turning on a soap opera after 20 years. Same plot. Same script. Same actors. But being away from Twitter, the perpetual American news cycle and the insane pendulum ride that is the Trump presidency gave me some much-needed perspective.

The reaction to Mueller’s testimony brings a key lesson to light. If y’all are focused on the 74-year-old lifelong Republican’s performance rather than the substance of what he actually said, you’re playing Trump’s game on Trump’s turf. Here are three of the bombshells from Mueller:

  1. The Russians are still interfering in U.S. politics. “They’re doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it in the next campaign,” Mueller told congressional lawmakers.
  2. The FBI is still engaged in a counterintelligence investigation. When pressed by Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) about how his report did not address false statements made by former national security adviser Michael Flynn, Mueller said, “I cannot get into that mainly because there are many elements of the FBI looking at that issue.” Notice the present tense? Krishnamoorthi did and asked, “Currently?” To which Mueller replied, “Currently.”
  3. The Mueller report does not exonerate the president on charges of obstruction of justice. “The finding indicates that the president was not exculpated for the acts that he allegedly committed,” Mueller told House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), using a $50 word (exculpated) to say the president was not declared not guilty of obstruction of justice.

The first two points are clarion calls for us to pay attention to things that are happening in the here and now that we’re not paying attention to because of Trump’s distraction industrial complex over at the White House. The third point is bound to have folks dismiss it because it’s something we already knew. And while that might be true, it’s always good to have the words said out loud again, since most folks haven’t read the 448-page Mueller report.

The dismissals of what Mueller had to say and the hyper focus on his performance from too many observers are exactly what Trump needed to feel as though he won the day. “I don’t think anybody that would say he did well,” the president said in response to a reporter’s query on the South Lawn. “I looked at your people. They’re saying it was devastating for the Democrats. And even I will tell you the two most nauseous and nauseating networks whose ratings have gone down even said this was a really bad day for the Democrats. So Robert Mueller did a poor job, but in all fairness to him he had nothing to work with.”

Since the start of Trump’s candidacy four years ago, we know that optics mean everything to Trump. How someone looks, how he or she sounds is paramount to the man who views every day as an episode of the “Apprentice” scripted television franchise that made everyone think he was a successful businessman instead of the grifter he really is. What should be important to all of us is that the world heard (again) that the Russians continue to undermine our democracy, that the Trump campaign was not averse to accepting Russian help in the 2016 presidential election and actively sought to cover up its actions, and that there was convincing evidence the president of the United States obstructed justice. And those are just some of the things that were discussed at the hearings.

Given all that, it would be easy to call Trump crazy for thinking that what happened on Wednesday was really a disaster for him. But when folks follow his lead and focus on performance and visuals rather than the substance, they’re playing Trump’s game on Trump’s turf. And when that happens, Trump wins. So if you’re playing that game and still wondering how Trump always seems to get away with the outrageous and the unconscionable, you should just look in the mirror.

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