During Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel investigation of the 2016 election, its final report was as anticipated as any piece of information in history. NPR even interviewed the families of terminally ill patients who were worried they might die before they could read its findings. The anticipation was as if word leaked that God was about to drop the 11th commandment.
And yet now, two months after the Mueller Report’s release, few people have read it. In a CNN poll last month, just 3% of Americans reported reading the whole report. (The survey didn’t say how many of those people are or were terminally ill.)
It’s not just the public that’s not reading it. Members of Congress aren’t either. Last month the Washington Post asked 92 members of Congress if they’d read the Mueller Report. While 73% of those in the House of Representatives said they had, just 50% of Senators surveyed claimed to have read it.
Why aren’t more people reading the Mueller Report? Is it Trump exhaustion? Have we picked our sides and stopped paying attention to the substance of the game? Or is it that — from a public interest perspective — the Mueller Report is kind of a flop?
Compare the Mueller Report to The 9/11 Commission Report, another government-published account of a national crisis. The 9/11 Commission Report was written in a narrative form with the public interest in mind. A New York Times review said “it reads like a novel.” It sold more than a million copies in its first year, and was even optioned for two TV series.
Despite the wall-to-wall cable news coverage, it’s hard to picture the TV shows that would spin out from the Mueller Report’s findings. A printed version is currently on the bestseller’s list, but it’s hardly a book club or beach read favorite. The reason is simple: the Mueller Report isn’t easy to read.
This critique isn’t totally fair, I admit. According to the Special Counsel statute, the intended audience for the Mueller Report isn’t the public, it’s the Justice Department. The report’s technical and legal language are there for technical and legal reasons. But it’s this same legalese that’s preventing the report from influencing the public or persuading those in power to follow through on its conclusions, which, even more confusingly, are presented as fortune cookie double-negative innuendos (“While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him”).
If the Mueller Report is a flop because its writing isn’t connecting, is there anything that can be done about it?
Well, what do the experts in flops do when something has a lot riding on it but isn’t working? In Hollywood, they bring someone in to rewrite it. What if the Special Counsel could do the same? Is there an adaptation of the Mueller Report that could move the needle?
There could be the Mueller-Wolf Report co-authored by Law & Order creator Dick Wolf. This draft would keep the Mueller Report’s two-part structure — an obvious homage to Law & Order (Part One: The Crime, Part Two: The Boring Stuff) — but add more drama. A fiery interrogation scene between Trump fixer Michael Cohen and Law & Order SVU’s Mariska Hargitay would bring Trump’s dire financial straits vividly to light.
Or it could be the Mueller-Abrams Report, with Lost/Star Wars writer J.J. Abrams bringing his multi-layered narrative style to the findings. In his hands, the report would be a labyrinthine mystery with unexpected twists and turns (the Seychelles! Sean Hannity!) that would keep Twitter buzzing. This version would end inconclusively, however, with major threads unresolved. Sounds a little too familiar. Moving on.
Could the Mueller-Duffer Brothers Report make a splash? The Stranger Things creators could re-set Mueller’s findings in the 1980s glory days of Russian fear-mongering. With the right soundtrack, wardrobe, and indoor smoking policies, Trump fans could share in the outrage that America’s democracy has been attacked.
The most watched version might be the Mueller-Gibson Report. Directed by Mel Gibson and aired on Fox, this version would get big ratings and headlines, though the graphic depiction of Donald Trump’s crucifixion at the hands of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page would prove controversial.
But in the end, there’s just one Mueller rewrite that’s a lock to make a difference. It’s also the hardest one to get for obvious reasons. But the Mueller-Kardashian-West Report would absolutely break through the noise.
Kim Kardashian would feature each of the ten possible obstruction of justice charges as Instagram stories for her 141 million followers (“Swipe up to impeach,” the screen reads after each one). She’d sprinkle her makeup tutorials with down-to-earth explanations of how Trump obstructed justice, limited the Special Counsel’s ability to pinpoint the nature of the Russia-Trump connection, and left America open to further attacks, which might be an impeachable offense on its own. Also don’t forget to check out her new CBD moisturizing lip balm.
After Kim starts promoting the MKW Report, daytime, gossip, and reality television begin covering Mueller’s findings for the first time. Trump’s approval rating noticeably dips. Caitlyn Jenner’s switch from pro- to anti-Trump even makes headlines in Trump’s hometown newspaper, The National Enquirer.
As for Kanye, his belief in Trump never wavers, but he’s already on the record stating nothing’s ever promised tomorrow today. Building on the landmark Yeezus, Kanye’s ode to betrayal Yudas is a stunning rebuke of Trump and a finely crafted song cycle about the abuse of power and its Constitutional implications.
But it’s Kanye’s Saturday Night Live appearance that’s the final nail in the coffin. Kanye performs Yudas’ lead single “Snapback” on a stage designed to look like a mock funeral for Trump, complete with Alec Baldwin as the Corpse-in-Chief. At the song’s finale, Kanye reaches into the casket, takes a red baseball cap out of Trump/Baldwin’s hands, and puts it on as he faces the camera. The hat reads: “MAKE AMERICA KANYE AGAIN.”
Hours later, the Trump presidency ends with a single-word tweet: “sad.”
To Impeach, or…
Some in the media are attempting to translate Mueller’s findings for the public.
There’s an excellent John Oliver segment about the Mueller Report, which includes the true story of two families telling their dying WW2 veteran fathers that Trump had been impeached so they could rest in piece.
A thirty-minute overview of the report by PBS Newshour is digestible and comprehensive.
There’s also a podcast with my favorite Mueller pundit, Marcy Wheeler, aptly titled “How to pretend that you’ve read the Mueller Report.”
These are a necessary start. Impeachment hearings should start as soon as possible, and should focus on Trump’s obstruction of justice. The political situation is bad and getting worse. The closer it gets to the 2020 election, the harder the process will be.
Three final thoughts on impeachment
1) In past emails I’ve predicted Trump will be impeached and re-elected in 2020. As of now, whether he’s impeached seems the more questionable of those two predictions. Yes, 2020 polls look bad for Trump at this moment, but he has many built-in advantages. Presidents tend to be reelected, the Democratic candidate will potentially need a +5 margin of victory to overcome the Electoral College, and Trump has cheated before and will cheat again. What’s less certain is whether Democrats will try to impeach. They’re afraid of losing the larger political battle. They may be overthinking it (shocker!).
2) Michigan Congressman Justin Amash becoming the first Republican to come out for impeachment is a big deal. He’s a staunch conservative, a libertarian, and formerly a member of the Freedom Caucus, an influential far-right group in Congress. In a series of tweets he made an effective, conservative case for impeachment. Also notable: he’s refused to do interviews, not wanting to use this position for personal gain. So far no other Republicans have followed.
Amash’s reasons for impeachment focus on Trump’s obstruction of justice. This is the right angle to take. Check out the Google search trends for “impeachment”:
That huge spike in May 2017? That’s right after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey to stop the investigation into Russian interference. That’s the moment when the public instinctively reached for impeachment. That’s the case that’s waiting to be made.
3) History suggests impeachment may change opinions. Or maybe it won’t. An interesting post by Sidney Blumenthal (the former Bill Clinton strategist, so not a disinterested source) looked at the approval numbers for Presidents Nixon and Clinton while they went through their impeachment proceedings. He writes:
“Since the release of the redacted version of the Mueller Report, support for impeachment of Trump has already risen to a near majority, 45% with 42% opposed… By contrast, Nixon began 1973 as a president reelected with an overwhelming majority and winning 49 states. He stood at 68% approval. Two weeks before his second inauguration, Watergate burglars pled guilty to conspiracy and other crimes, which soon triggered congressional inquiries into Watergate. By May, when the Senate Watergate hearings began, Nixon’s standing in public opinion began to erode, a decline accelerated at each stage by his stonewalling of Congress and the courts. Public support for impeachment of Nixon, however, did not reach the level at which it already stands for Trump until near May 1974, a full year after the Senate Watergate hearings. In short, Trump now stands in public opinion where Nixon did after Senate hearings, after John Dean and others testified, after the Nixon tapes were exposed.”
He includes a chart of public opinion on Nixon as Watergate unfolded. As the public learned of Nixon’s actions and character through televised hearings and a news barrage, Nixon’s approval plummeted from 68% to 24% in 18 months.
This is the “sunshine is the best disinfectant” case for impeachment.
But Blumenthal’s analysis also reflects my fear, which is that opinions will not change. We can see this in Bill Clinton’s approval numbers during his impeachment proceedings. They’re remarkably static:
Most of the public really liked him, a smaller percentage hated him, and this didn’t change throughout the proceedings. This is evidence that the charges against Clinton didn’t have merit in the eyes of the public (otherwise his popularity would have decreased). But note that Clinton’s disapproval numbers never changed either. For those who disliked Clinton, their opinion never wavered. It still hasn’t.
Today most of the public really dislikes Donald Trump, a minority percentage really likes him, and both sides are standing their ground. Can impeachment change that?
To go back to Mueller once more: Maybe. While the Mueller Report didn’t shift public opinion, Robert Mueller’s seven-minute TV press conference last month did. An NPR poll found a 16% increase in support for impeachment after Mueller’s brief remarks.
This was the Special Counsel’s first, last, and only public appearance during the investigation. During that same period, Donald Trump sent approximately 1,000 tweets attacking the inquiry.
The Mueller team’s silence was seen as a badge of honor during the investigation. It showed they were above the fray. But considering how much more impact Mueller’s evidence had when presented in human form rather than an unread report, I wonder if history will judge the Special Counsel’s communications strategy so kindly.
Watching Mueller defend the report on television, I felt like I was watching an artist respond to critics who wanted their work to be more popular, more relevant. “We chose those words carefully,” Mueller said in his statement, “and the work speaks for itself.”
Except maybe it doesn’t.
We can’t afford for the Mueller Report to be an indie hit or misunderstood for its time. We can’t let it fade into the past. We need blockbuster impeachment hearings. We need to know what really happened. We need to remember the alarm we felt in May 2017. The emergency never stopped. We just got used to it.
Long ago I was an obsessive CD buyer and collector. But after living in too many small New York City apartments and hocking my collection to pay for a root canal while unemployed, my musical existence is fully cloud-based these days.
This is convenient, but also distressing as a lot of incredible music is missing from these services. A New York Times story last week said only 20% of recorded music is available on streaming services. The other 80% is in danger of disappearing completely as time goes on. A lot of great music will need to get rediscovered to survive.
One of my favorite albums ever is among those missing.
Rubbed Out by Alexis Taylor is an intimate, lovely record with incredible song after incredible song. The album was recorded in his bedroom and in hotel rooms while on tour with his band Hot Chip. His cover of Paul McCartney’s “Coming Up” is one of the few examples I know of someone genuinely improving a Beatle’s song.
Released on a small boutique label, the album is impossible to find. It disappeared into the void after never really being noticed in the first place. I’ve made a YouTube playlist of the few tracks that are publicly available if you want to give it a try. It’s worth tracking down the whole thing if you can.
Peace and love my friends,