Kurt Bardella Were the Mueller hearings a disaster for Democrats? Only if Americans weren't really listening

Mueller did not exactly exude charisma, but his testimony before Congress was illuminating when distilled down to the key moments.
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Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill, on July 24, 2019.Andrew Harnik / AP
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By Kurt Bardella, NBC News THINK contributor

In the opening minutes of Wednesday’s first hearing with former special counsel Robert Mueller, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., pointedly asked, “Did you actually totally exonerate the president?” Mueller’s one-word response? “No.”

It was one of the more climactic moments of Mueller’s many hours of testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, which says all you need to know about the rest of that time. Anyone hoping for or expecting loud outbursts and emotional testimony has perhaps spent too much time watching fictitious courtroom dramas. This isn’t the WWE, it’s the United States Congress. But while the substance of Mueller’s testimony was often less than entertaining, it was an important moment in the saga that has been Donald Trump’s presidency.

While the substance of Mueller’s testimony was often less than entertaining, it was an important moment in the saga that has been Donald Trump’s presidency.

Trump reportedly was “triumphant” as he watched the event. But perceptions of the testimony are likely to vary widely in the immediate aftermath. This isn’t surprising. Much like the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate, how you experienced this hearing will likely color your impressions of it. In 1960, those who listened to the debate thought Richard Nixon performed better, but those who watched it on television seemed to favor John F. Kennedy.

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If you watched the entirety of the day’s proceedings, you might be more fixated on the optics of the performances. If you followed along via social media, you likely saw a handful of key “moments” and exchanges — and a lot of opinions. I suspect most Americans will get their recap either via the old-fashioned way, watching the evening news or by reading their news source of choice. Most people will only watch a few minutes of testimony, if any of it, distilled down by video editors into a handful of short exchanges.

For his part, Mueller did not exactly exude charisma. According to trackers, Mueller refused to answer questions from Congress close to 200 times. According to CNN, on 43 occasions, he simply referred the lawmakers to his report. But this also means that when he gave a direct answer, it stood out, and those answers are what’s going to be replayed over and over and over again throughout the week.

One such moment came when Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., asked, “Could you charge the president with a crime after he left office?” Mueller replied, “Yes.” A surprised Buck followed up, “Could you charge the president of the United States after he left office?” Mueller answered again, “Yes.” (Mueller did not go so far as to say Trump should be charged, of course.)

Another illuminating exchange came via Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., who asked Mueller if it was fair to say that Trump’s “written answers were not only inadequate and incomplete because he didn’t answer your questions, but where he did, his answers show that he wasn’t always being truthful?” Mueller replied, “Generally.”

Arguably the most devastating line of questioning was delivered by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who pointedly asked Mueller about Trump’s repeated claims that the investigation was a “witch hunt.”

Arguably the most devastating line of questioning was delivered by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who pointedly asked Mueller about Trump’s repeated claims that the investigation was a “witch hunt.” Mueller responded, “No, it is not.” Schiff continued, “When the president said the Russian interference as a ‘hoax,’ that was false wasn’t it?” Mueller, deadpan, replied, “True.”

Schiff asked if “knowingly accepting foreign assistance during a presidential campaign is an unethical thing to do?” To which Mueller added, “And a crime.” Schiff then replied, “Can we also agree it’s also unpatriotic and wrong?” Mueller agreed. Returning to the report, Schiff stated, “Your report describes a sweeping and systemic effort by Russia to influence our presidential election.” Mueller noted that this description was “correct.” Then Schiff followed up again: “During the course of this Russian interference, the Russians made outreach to the Trump campaign?” Mueller’s response: “That occurred.”

When asked about Trump’s seeming embrace of WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign, Mueller broke new ground characterizing the president’s conduct as “disturbing” and commenting that calling it “problematic is an understatement, in terms of what it displays, in terms of giving some hope or some boost to what is and should be illegal activity.”

And perhaps the most chilling exchange played out as Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, asked Mueller about Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mueller sounded the alarm quite clearly. “It wasn’t a single attempt," he told lawmakers. "They’re doing it as we sit here. And they expect to do it during the next campaign.”

Because Americans — and the media — are increasingly become accustomed to politics being treated like a game, there will be lots of commentary this week about who won and who lost on Wednesday. The bottom line is that the former special prosecutor clearly and directly stated that he did not clear the president of obstruction, that the president was untruthful and less than helpful during the investigation, that inviting foreign interference was disturbing and that efforts to undermine our elections are still happening right now.

But did Democrats get that made-for-TV moment that could help them ignite impeachment proceedings? I guess it depends on whether Americans were really paying attention.