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OPINION

Bold, clear and swift wins a message war

By MATTHEW MILLER | Special to The Washington Post | Published: December 6, 2019

“No collusion, no obstruction.” The Mueller report weighed in at 448 door-stopping pages, but with those four words, which appear together exactly nowhere in the report, President Donald Trump reduced two years’ worth of carefully gathered facts to a breezily succinct, if utterly false, mantra.

Washington is awash in investigative reports. The House Intelligence Committee led by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., unveiled its account of the impeachment inquiry into the president on Tuesday, one day after Republicans on the committee tried to preempt the Democratic majority by releasing their own report, defending the president’s actions. Next week, the Department of Justice’s inspector general will release a highly anticipated report detailing its investigation into the origins of the Russia investigation, its third such accounting of the agency’s activities during the 2016 election. And, of course, in April, the Justice Department released then-special counsel Robert Mueller’s report of the results of that investigation.

Each report announces itself as the definitive accounting of the events it examines. But if there is one thing that is true in the “alternative facts” era of Donald Trump, it is that there is no such thing as a definitive account. Which is why a big fat report might only be as good as the messenger who delivers it most simply, compellingly and, preferably, first. A successful messenger can twist and distort a complicated narrative, ignore critical conclusions in favor of cherry-picked passages, and get out ahead of a competing message: The opening salvo in the messaging war has a much better shot at being the winning one.

When I worked as the Justice Department’s top spokesperson, I constantly struggled against an institutional culture that prized speaking only in court, and counseled ignoring the swirl of public debate that occurs outside a courtroom. At times, that principle is right, most notably when prosecutors bring criminal charges. In the present environment, however, investigative reports need to be as much mass-communications documents as legal ones. Their effectiveness depends not just on the strength of their underlying conclusions but also on their ability to tell a compelling story.

Uncovering the facts is the most important job for investigators. But their reports should follow a few simple rules to break through the cacophony of partisanship — and especially the fact-free fog created by the current White House and its allies — and ensure the facts they reveal are properly understood.

First, an effective report must have a simple, clear message that is easily digestible by mass audiences. This seemingly obvious starting point is the most difficult objective to achieve, as Mueller himself showed in his report.

The Mueller report, read in its entirety and properly deciphered, presents a stunning compendium of presidential criminality. The evidence Mueller compiled detailing the president’s alleged obstruction of justice was so definitive that over 1,000 former federal prosecutors concluded that Trump’s conduct would have resulted in criminal charges had Department of Justice rules not barred a sitting president from being indicted, noting in their statement that “these are not matters of close professional judgment.”

Yet Mueller’s own presentation of his findings was muddled and incoherent. “[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment,” he wrote in a passage that will go down in history as an example of over-lawyered hand-wringing taking a back seat to crisp thinking and writing.

By contrast, the House Intelligence Committee’s report brings light and clarity to the president’s misconduct. If Mueller’s report was “Ulysses,” the Schiff report was “The Sun Also Rises.” It can take a scholar to unpack a Joycean sentence; Hemingway is crisp, short and blunt. The brief executive summary of the House Intelligence Committee neatly presents its findings: “a months-long effort by President Trump to use the powers of his office to solicit foreign interference on his behalf in the 2020 election.” The report doesn’t just outline the relevant facts, however. It also places them in context, arguing clearly how the president’s behavior fit into the Founding Fathers’ conception of impeachable offenses and why it is urgent that Congress act. Schiff writes that Trump is a repeat offender “determined to use his vast official powers to secure his election.”

Mueller’s defenders will argue that, as a Department of Justice prosecutor, he was bound by rules that do not apply to congressional committees. But those rules do not preclude him from speaking clearly about what he found. In fact, a president’s exemption from prosecution while in office only heightens the need for a prosecutor to be clear to Congress and the public about what his investigation reveals. For all the flaws in Ken Starr’s 1990s investigation into President Bill Clinton, his final report left no doubt about what he believed the outcome to be: the president lied under oath, obstructed justice and deserved to be removed from office.

In addition to clarity and simplicity, a key to delivering a successful report is controlling its presentation to the public. Attorney General William Barr has shown how well he understands this. He infamously spun the results of the Mueller report — releasing his own summary, testifying about it to two congressional committees and even holding a news conference, all before the public ever read a word of what Mueller wrote in its own context. Barr seemed set to repeat this formula with the upcoming inspector general report, briefing a key congressional ally, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., weeks in advance of its release. Graham promptly predicted a “damning” report that would “prove that the system got off the rails” and scheduled a hearing to examine its findings.

But this time, others familiar with the report’s findings have been unwilling to cede the playing field to the attorney general. Repeated leaks have revealed that the report will confirm that the FBI acted appropriately in opening its Russia investigation. Barr reportedly disputes this finding, but should he try to rerun his Mueller playbook, and release his own interpretation before the report’s official release, he will do so against a very different public backdrop, one primed by swifter messengers.

Finally, a report’s authors must be willing to defend their conclusions publicly and, most importantly, correct those who misinterpret their work in bad faith. It is here, ultimately, where Mueller failed most significantly, allowing Trump’s misleading “no collusion, no obstruction” tagline — his blunt abbreviation of Barr’s message — to go unchallenged for months before he halfheartedly pushed back at congressional hearings he only reluctantly attended.

When the fate of the truth is left in the hands of those with an interest in seeing it obliterated, any entity that does not clearly, deliberately and consistently explain its work will see that work distorted beyond recognition. That may be fine when the ultimate audience is 12 Americans in a jury box, and simply reciting the facts is enough. But when it comes to persuading 327 million Americans whose black mirrors increasingly come in shades of red or blue, it is a prescription for certain failure.

Matthew Miller was director of the Justice Department’s public affairs office from 2009 to 2011.

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