The evidence, now in the transcript, previously in Mueller’s report, should also speak for itself. We know — and no one is seriously disputing — there was Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. We know Russian operatives hacked the Democratic Party and put stolen material, via WikiLeaks, into the public domain, and they created fake social media accounts designed to fool people. We know the Trump campaign staff was aware of these efforts and encouraged them; we know several of those staffers are now in prison. We know President Trump sought to hide all of this from Mueller’s team, potentially committing crimes that mean he could be prosecuted upon leaving office.
In a world where only facts matter, a small part of this would have been enough to condemn the president and his sleazy associates to political oblivion, if not immediately to jail. But we don’t live in a world where only facts matter. What matters, even more, is trust. What matters more is who presents the facts and how they are presented.
Once upon a time, a report such as Mueller’s would have automatically been treated as trustworthy, simply because of the institutions with which Mueller is associated: the Marine Corps, the Justice Department, the FBI. But we no longer live in that time. A recent Pew Research Center survey shows that not only is American trust in the federal government at “near historic lows,” three-quarters of Americans think this distrust is “justified.”
In other words, we don’t trust the government, we know no one else trusts the government, and we think that’s fine. Nor do we trust one another: About half of Americans (47 percent, according to that same Pew survey) either no longer trust or have “not too much” trust that their compatriots will accept election results, for example.
The Republican members of Congress know this perfectly well. That explains their tactics. Instead of refuting the information within Mueller’s report, which they cannot do, they sought to persuade their constituents not to read it, and not to believe it, by smearing Mueller and his team. I doubt very much whether Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) really believes his ludicrous story about the Democrats colluding with Russia, a conspiracy theory commonly voiced on Fox News and thrown at Mueller on Wednesday. But Nunes doesn’t care, and Fox News doesn’t care: The point is that repeating this convoluted nonsense creates cacophony, decreases trust even further and inspires voters to throw up their hands and say, “I don’t believe any of them.” The point is to make facts so suspect, and institutions so shaky, that nobody believes in anything.
Mueller had a strategy to combat this tactic: To speak and write as dully, as apolitically, as unemotionally as possible, to portray himself as a neutral civil servant, a faithful FBI man, loyal to the institutions and no one else. I repeat: In the days when we trusted neutral civil servants and institutions, that might have worked. Now we don’t, and it doesn’t.
Both in the report and in the hearing, Mueller needed to show something else. An awareness of what is at stake, for example — an acknowledgment that there is a criminal in the White House and that Trump is dangerous. He might have anticipated the way the report would be spun by the administration and made some effort to avoid it, perhaps by spelling out his conclusions in clearer language, accessible to people without law degrees. He might have stated upfront his belief that the president obstructed justice, but that he cannot be convicted while in office. He might have transmitted that belief in sentences without double negatives. Given the level of potential criminality Mueller uncovered in the White House, and knowing how much faster emotion travels on social media, he could have injected some concern or even fear for his country into his writing or his voice. He might, God forbid, have had a social media strategy of his own. Or have gotten someone else to create one.
Winning trust is something everyone speaking in public has to do. In every era, it takes different skills — and ours is not an age that respects institutional authority or neutrality. Having taken on this job, Mueller had an obligation to convey his findings in a manner that would be believable to a U.S. audience that does not read long reports, that is skeptical of the FBI and the Justice Department, that gets its news from cellphone apps and doesn’t trust public officials. It would not have taken much — very little extra time, not much thought — to attempt such a strategy. Mueller’s failure is our loss.