When former Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III walked into room 2141 in the Rayburn House Office Building on Wednesday to testify before Congress, he should have been suited for battle.
But Mueller, a traditionalist, appeared either unaware or disinterested in the reality that he was about to take center stage in the raging information wars.
Speaking to members of Congress about his report into Russian election meddling, Mueller appeared uncomfortable to be in the spotlight. He declined to read from his report, which at times he seemed unfamiliar with. He tripped over his words, hesitant to go beyond what had been spelled out in black and white in the 438-page document. And he mistakenly contradicted previous statements, even being forced to correct what had initially been portrayed as a bombshell exchange he had with Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu.
Mueller’s performance was everything his political opponents could have hoped for. While he may have not provided the Democrats with much new ammunition to use in their pursuit of impeachment, Mueller offered up plenty of material for Republicans.
In the age of the information wars, where nearly everything is weaponized for political purposes, Mueller inadvertently allowed for his message — an important one — to be hijacked by those who aimed to discredit it.
Video clips of Mueller appearing at times befuddled were circulated far and wide on social media. Trump himself even took part in sharing several clips of Mueller’s lackluster testimony.
Instead of focusing on Mueller’s warning of current Russian interference, or him contradicting the president’s assertion that his report exonerated him, Trump’s media allies spotlighted his demeanor. The Drudge Report’s banner headline called him “dazed and confused.” Breitbart’s main headline said he was “low energy.” And Fox News personalities suggested Mueller perhaps had not actually been the one in command of the special counsel’s investigation.
The whole episode was representative of a larger flaw in Mueller’s approach as special counsel: As an institutionalist, Mueller believed that simply conducting a conventional investigation and issuing a report of its findings would allow truth to win out at the end of the day. He disregarded the importance of public perception, seeming to think that the facts he would gather would be enough to compel action.
Meanwhile, Mueller’s opponents disregarded convention, openly running a disinformation campaign against him and his team. They worked to frame the public debate and color the special counsel’s office as a group of dirty deep-state operatives acting at the best of the Democratic Party.
Mueller never pushed back against that narrative in a meaningful way, either unaware of the media environment he resided in, unsure of what to do, or placing faith in the belief that staying silent and not acknowledging the reality of it was the best thing to do. Whichever one it was, it was a mistake.
“It’s all about knowing the ecosystem you are operating in and working inside it as opposed to working on a separate plane of existence,” said Charlie Warzel, an opinion writer for The New York Times who covers the information wars. “We are all part of a big, pulsing political and media ecosystem. To suggest that you can stand aside just means you are ceding your platform to somebody else to weaponize it and interpret it the way they want.”
Compare Mueller’s media approach to that of someone like Trey Gowdy, the former Republican congressman who chaired the House Select Committee on Benghazi. While Gowdy’s Benghazi probe turned up less damaging information on President Obama than Mueller’s probe did on Trump, he was far more astute at using the media to generate hype.
Gowdy, never camera shy and well versed in the art of information warfare, appeared on cable news to keep the public updated on his investigation and publicize his findings. In fact, Gowdy effectively drilled the narrative he put forth in his report into the public conscience.
In contrast, Mueller mostly stayed silent while serving as special counsel, choosing to operate by traditional rules and conduct his investigation in the dark. This approach gave bad-faith actors the upper hand. It is not difficult to project an image onto an empty slate.
“An institutionalist who cannot accept that the institution is under asymmetrical attack will wind up assisting in that attack innocently,” observed New York University professor Jay Rosen on Twitter as Wednesday’s hearings dominated the news cycle, “That is, by keeping faith with the values of the institution.”
Mueller’s strategy of general silence might have worked 30 years ago when the majority of Americans received their information form network newscasts and newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post.
But in 2019, the media environment is far different.
On the right, in particular, an alternative media universe filled with bad-faith actors has flourished. These bad-faith actors now reach a sizable portion of the United States, whether through talk radio, websites, or networks like Fox News. Combined, bad faith actors on the right have allowed for the amplification of fringe — and politically beneficial — theories and narratives that would have formally been hidden from sight and relegated to obscure message boards on the web.
Throughout Mueller’s tenure as special counsel, he and his investigation were repeatedly the targets of this alternate universe.
Conspiracy theories were spread aiming to discredit Russia’s role in election meddling, such as the unfounded notion that slain Democratic National Committee Seth Rich leaked emails to WikiLeaks. Mueller was accused of acting like a dirty cop and attempting to coerce witnesses like Jerome Corsi to lie in exchange for leniency. And at one point, far-right actors even tried to slap a false allegation of sexual assault on Mueller himself.
None of the theories, of course, had to make much sense. It often felt as if Mueller’s opponents were throwing spaghetti against the wall, looking for something that would stick. In one breath, for instance, Trump characterized Mueller as the leader of “18 angry Democrats” who were on a “witch hunt.” In another, Trump falsely claimed Mueller’s report was a “total vindication.”
On Thursday, after his testimony, Trump’s allies launched a new attack, painting him as a bumbling, incompetent disaster after spending the previous two years portraying him as a powerful deep-state actor. Mueller, unsurprisingly, has chosen not to push back.