Special to The Washington Post
With few exceptions, I prefer reading the book to seeing the movie, but most people remember images, voices and dialogue - “You can’t handle the truth” (“A Few Good Men”), “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” (“Jaws”) - better than the written word. Which is a reminder that the Mueller report is made for the screen. And at the moment, Democrats seem to be forgetting the power of live television. More people will grasp the import of the special counsel’s work if they see sworn witnesses answering questions on their screens than if they try to digest 448 pages of fairly dense legal analysis.
Even Robert Mueller’s nine-minute statement Wednesday underscored this. If his office “had had the confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime,” he said, “we would have said so.” With his Marine bearing, prosecutorial voice and measured words, Mueller ended his chapter as special counsel but highlighted the systematic Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the challenges of proving a criminal conspiracy and his inability to charge the president with obstruction because of a Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president. This was Mueller’s silver platter, and he handed it to Congress.
It’s time for Democratic leaders to repackage Mueller’s findings in a form that will be more readily digested by the American people. Unfortunately, the current approach of investigations in no fewer than six committees, multiple subpoenas, innumerable court proceedings and White House delay tactics just creates more confusion. How can the United States focus on the findings if a Democratic House will not singularly focus its investigations? From the cheap seats, it appears that there may be too many balls in the air.
It is no surprise that few Americans are talking about the report over the water cooler. The only voice that breaks through with a consistent (if mostly untrue) message is President Donald Trump’s, especially absent an alternative narrative. Democrats should look at this differently. Mueller has given Democrats cover to present that narrative and proceed with impeachment as the appropriate process under the Constitution.
Mueller almost seemed to be inviting the House Democrats to take the next step. In his words, “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.” And with all respect for Mueller’s conduct of this investigation, he doesn’t really get to decide whether he should appear before Congress and testify. Even if all Mueller does is stay within the bounds of his report, the power of his voice on the record and under oath will help to focus Americans on resolving these important questions.
For Democrats, the politics are complicated, but they are not insurmountable. Some worry that Democrats will lose their House majority, and perhaps their chance to retake the White House, by focusing on impeachment rather than health care, jobs and climate change. House Democrats are understandably frustrated. In the first 100 days of Congress, the House has passed more than 100 bills on these and other matters, none of which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., will probably bring to the floor.
Others argue that impeachment is not worth it because public opinion does not support it, and it probably would not lead to conviction and removal in the Senate. Democrats should instead use the impeachment process to make the case and move public opinion against the incumbent president rather than wait for public opinion to catch up to the evidence. The country needs to hear from Mueller and witnesses within the serious framework of an impeachment proceeding - no fried chicken buckets and no one-liners, please.
Finally, it’s time to debunk the argument that Trump wants to be impeached. His words may seem to say “bring it on,” but his actions suggest otherwise. With every tweet, the president telegraphs his fear of being held to account in front of the American people through sworn public testimony and evidence. Though Trump keeps his base always in mind, Democrats might begin to wonder about the impact on their base of not moving forward, especially when Mueller himself effectively handed them an impeachment referral.