Special counsel Robert Muller speaks at the Department of Justice Wednesday, May 29, 2019, in Washington, about the Russia investigation. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Robert Mueller's brief remarks get wall-to-wall coverage

May 29, 2019 - 2:08 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — Robert Mueller spoke for only 10 minutes, and his statements yielded no new information on the Russia probe. But for much of the American media, the special counsel's first public comments in two years warranted wall-to-wall coverage.

Many journalists focused Wednesday on whether Mueller's remarks on his investigation into interference in the 2016 presidential election increased the chances that Congress will pursue impeachment proceedings, with elections looming in 2020.

The comments were covered with fanfare. ABC, CBS and NBC broke into regular programming to cover the appearance live, and Fox offered a feed to local affiliates. Cable news outlets including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC offered extensive analysis.

Online, The New York Times led with the fact that Mueller "declines to clear Trump," while the conservative news outlet Breitbart said the statement "pours gas on impeachment mania."

The coverage came after news organizations were criticized by some over how they covered the investigation when the report finally came out in March.

Still, CNN's Wolf Blitzer declared, "We are seeing a historic day unfolding."

Judy Muller, professor emeritus at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said reporters were better prepared to discuss the legal ramifications of Mueller's comments than they were ahead of the report.

Before the report was released "it was all speculation," she said. "Now you have the guy with the report, quoting from his own report we all should have read. I think that's very different than speculation that preceded the release initially."

CNN spent the next several hours with paid commentators, picking apart Mueller's words and trying to analyze what they might mean for impeachment, the 2020 presidential elections and the attorney general, William Barr.

Blitzer called it a "remarkable statement after two years of public silence" from the special counsel that "injected new drama into the debate over impeachment."

Like other media outlets, CNN zeroed on Mueller's statement that "if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so."

"That's a pretty damning thing for the special counsel to say," anchor Jake Tapper said.

James Clapper, former director of national intelligence and a paid security analyst for CNN, weighed in to call the appearance "classic Bob Mueller. Understated, but I think he clearly thought about every word."

On Fox, commentators focused on statements by 2020 presidential hopefuls calling for impeachment, including a tweet from Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, who said that starting impeachment proceedings was "the only path forward."

Fox anchor Bret Baier also noted Mueller's statement Wednesday that charging President Donald Trump with a crime was not an option due to longstanding guidelines from the Department of Justice. That comment, Baier said, appeared at odds with Barr's statement in March that department guidelines had no impact on the report.

Trump, who has repeatedly and falsely claimed that Mueller's report cleared him of obstruction of justice, aired his position on Twitter. "There was insufficient evidence and therefore, in our Country, a person is innocent. The case is closed!" he tweeted.

Hosts, correspondents and analysts on the left-leaning MSNBC cable news channel largely cast Mueller's statement as encouragement for Congress to act. They dismissed tweets from Trump and his lawyers and staff, saying Mueller's comments did not mean "case closed."

Speaking to the network by phone, Neal Katyal, the former acting solicitor general of the U.S., said Mueller' s comments were "a damning portrait of the president," and the next step rests with Congress.

"I don't think there is any other way to read what was said today than that," Katyal said.

Kasie Hunt, who covers Congress for MSNBC, said Mueller was trying to make clear that he does not have anything to add, and that Congress will be the next theater of action.

"Pressure for impeachment already sharply escalated in the hour or so after Mueller concluded remarks," Hunt said.

On social media, Dan Rather, who covered Richard Nixon's presidency and the Watergate scandal when he was White House correspondent at CBS, said on Twitter that Mueller's statement was "going through the Rorschach test of our current political divisions."

"But in essence it echoes all of the devastating reality in his report and his belief that ultimate accountability for the President must be the duty of Congress," added Rather, a longtime anchor of the "CBS Evening News."

Chris Matthews, the host of "Hardball" on MSNBC, tweeted that it's a "now or never" moment for House Democrats and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"Today, Mueller clearly pointed to the 400-page document saying here is the evidence," Matthews wrote. "Democrats have the chance to move on impeachment with that report."

Fox host Sean Hannity, meanwhile, fired off several tweets emphasizing that the special counsel's office is closing. 

"TRUMP TO MUELLER: 'The case is closed! Thank you,'" he tweeted , linking a story from his website that quoted the president's statement.

Matt Jordan, professor of media studies at Penn State University, said the widespread coverage was proportional to the size of the story.

"It's been two years of buildup, so it's expected that everyone would cover this," he said. "Everybody was waiting for Mueller to speak and he finally did."

___

Associated Press writers Tali Arbel and Alexandra Olson in New York and Barbara Ortutay in San Francisco contributed to this report.