After Robert S. Mueller III testified before Congress last week, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said of the Democrats’ approach to the hearing: “We weren’t trying to entertain the American people. … We didn’t invite Robert De Niro to testify; we invited Robert Mueller.”
Really, Chairman Jeffries? For the last year, I’ve had more experience playing Mueller publicly than Mueller has. Two months ago, I openly urged him to speak out, and while I’m sure it wasn’t my voice ringing in his head when he decided to testify, I like to think he would have been amused that his “Saturday Night Live” doppelganger was adding to the chorus telling him what to do.
I don’t want to criticize Director Mueller as an actor, so let’s just say my approach to the part would have been different. Mueller chose to play himself as a calm, confident, dignified public servant. His “backstory”: a patriot serving his country from the battlefields of Vietnam to the battlefields of Washington, D.C.
That’s a valid acting choice, don’t get me wrong. But I, more of a method actor, would have channeled my inner rage at the years of Donald Trump’s illegal and immoral acts, and I would have been more in touch with my fury after two years of Trump and his stooges accusing me of running a witch hunt. I would have dropped the unruffled exterior and been more, let’s say, expansive in my response. I may have dropped an f-bomb or two or eight. The emphasis would have shifted more to me — which is what audiences expect from their movie stars — while Mueller preferred to stay in the background, putting country and integrity first, and letting action and facts speak for him. These are old-fashioned values, not cool enough for today’s distracted audience. Even more important, the Academy doesn’t give Oscars for “calm, confident and dignified.”
Some differences in our approach to playing Mueller are so subtle that the casual viewer would hardly notice. For example, where Mueller’s Mueller might refer to Trump as “president,” I might use the equally descriptive and familiar “malignant narcissist.”
Still, as I watched Mueller’s performance, I couldn’t help but think that a public servant should not have to “perform” to command our attention.
It seems that everyone — the Democrats, Trump and the Republicans, the country — got what they wanted from the hearings, and yet no one was satisfied.
Even before Wednesday’s testimony, the report gave the Democrats what they had expected: detailed documentary proof of Russia’s aggressive interference in our democratic process, evidence of Trump’s criminal obstruction of justice, and a diabolical catalogue of his campaign’s encouragement of Russian aid in electing him. The Democrats’ hope was to get a strong confirmation in Mueller’s own voice. They got that, too, albeit in undramatic, monosyllabic responses. If it turns out the Democrats want more — and I want them to want more — then Mueller’s report and testimony gave them all they need for impeachment: high crimes, misdemeanors and, though not required, a flock of felonies.
The Republicans also didn’t need any more than they already had. They’d successfully nullified the conclusions of the Mueller report, first by circulating Attorney General William P. Barr’s mendacious summary of it and then by echoing Trump’s fantasy that the report found “no obstruction, no collusion.” All the Republicans asked for was that Mueller wouldn’t add anything — and, heartbreakingly, Mueller cooperated. Trump predictably called the hearing “SAD,” but for me the saddest part was watching Republicans personally attacking Mueller, their eyes affecting righteous outrage, their mouths twisted in hate. When Mueller respected Trump’s Justice Department edict that he restrict his answers because of dubious “privilege” claims, he was lambasted for not answering those very questions. I found myself hoping that those Republicans actually believed what they were saying, not acting the part; that they are genuine freakish ideologues, sincere accomplices, true racists and enthusiastic enablers rather than grasping opportunists cynically carrying Trump’s fetid water because they’ve been bought off with the threat of losing their jobs and power.
It’s difficult to assess what the country got from the hearings. You’d think that the confirmation of “sweeping and systemic” attacks on America’s electoral apparatus would be the story. Mueller warned that “the Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious” challenges to our democracy. “This deserves the attention of every American.” Twenty-four hours later, the Republican-dominated Senate Intelligence Committee reported that election systems in all 50 states were targeted in 2016. This occurred in the shadow of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s blocking election security bills in the Senate. Maybe Russia actually does have something on Trump and McConnell and their gang. Or maybe it’s as simple as, “Well, it worked before; it will work again.” As long as these Republicans hold power, all the country will get out of the hearings is the right to say, “I told you so.”
We deserve better. House of Representatives, take action. Mueller handed you the evidence; the Constitution gives you the authority; the people gave you the power. History demands you use it.
And what about me? Well, as Robert Mueller vanishes from public scrutiny, my opportunities to play him will fade, as well. It’s okay. I’m ready to move on. I think I could do a really good Jerry Nadler, my own great congressman and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The last time I gained and lost weight to play a scrappy New York street fighter (for “Raging Bull”), I won an Oscar.
Author photo of De Niro by Brigitte Lacombe