Skip to main content

Mueller's Testimony Doesn't Give Either Party What It Wants

And research shows that both Democrats and Republicans likely only heard what they wanted to hear.
Robert Mueller.

During back-to-back hearings on Wednesday, in his testimony before members of Congress on the findings of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, former special counsel Robert Mueller stuck closely to the material already contained in his 448-page report.

"It is unusual for a prosecutor to testify about a criminal investigation," Mueller noted in his opening statement, "and given my role as a prosecutor, there are reasons why my testimony will necessarily be limited."

In curt, careful statements, Mueller frequently declined to respond ("I can't answer that question") or deferred to the written report ("I leave it with the report"). He did, however, confirm that his investigation did not exonerate President Donald Trump.

But we knew that back in March when Attorney General William Barr first released his letter ostensibly summarizing the report's findings. And as Emily Moon reported for Pacific Standard at the time, research shows such information is unlikely to change people's minds:

This is the effect that psychologists call motivated reasoning, which allows people who are especially attuned to politics to reject information that does not fit their views. This means that people "love to find information that supports their biases, and they discount information that is inconsistent with their biases," explains political scientist John Hibbing, who studies differences in political behavior at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

This type of reasoning was on clear display during Wednesday's hearings, during which Republican and Democratic members of Congress offered wildly different interpretations of Mueller's findings. "At least for those who've come to a pretty clear conclusion about politics," Hibbing told Moon in March, "there's a pretty strong process of rationalizing to make whatever information they obtain fit with their pre-existing view of the world."

As the New York Times has reported, Mueller's sidestepping and halting answers frustrated both sides. He likely disappointed Democrats who were seeking a definitive push for impeachment. And his confirmation that Trump could be indicted after he leaves office likely dismayed Republicans as well.