D.C. denizens have long treated politics as a spectator sport. They invent drinking games for the State of the Union. Friends console each other while watching election night returns. And yes, bars open early for a certain House Judiciary hearing on 2016 election interference.
Who shows up to these things? After all, former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony was scheduled smack dab in the middle of the workday.
I went to Shaw’s Tavern Wednesday morning to see who has the time. Turns out it’s nerdy government employees, grad students, campaign staffers and workers “calling in sick” — but mostly it’s other journalists.
When I arrived at the tavern for Mueller’s 8:30 a.m. testimony, several people were sitting at the bar sipping coffee, snapping photos and eating breakfast potatoes. The crowd of “civilians” was scant, but I immediately recognized the signifiers of my own tribe: ID lanyards, camera tripods and notepads. The ratio of customers to journalists would eventually rise to about 2:1. Bloggers, reporters and video teams from RT, the BBC and even a German broadcaster all scrambled to interview anyone who would talk.
Lots of people move to D.C. because they have a professional interest in politics, taking jobs as Hill staffers, agency officials, fundraisers, party operatives, lobbyists and journalists. We’re interested in the nitty-gritty details in ways that the average voter is not. For this, D.C. professionals are often accused of living in an elite bubble, an anxiety-provoking charge some of us have grown even more defensive about since 2016.
But having a bar watch special for congressional testimony feels even more on the nose #ThisTown than decorating your bedroom with inspirational quotes from the fantasy television program “West Wing.”
An examiner from the U.S. Patent Office sat by the tavern’s open accordion window, intently scribbling notes on his copy of the Mueller report as House lawmakers questioned the former special prosecutor. The examiner, who did not want to be identified by name, said he listens to a lot of C-SPAN radio and has followed the case closely. He showed up early to the bar expecting a line around the door, which is what he found back in June 2017 during ex-FBI Director James Comey’s testimony. This time, there was none.
While the patent official’s work hours are flexible, it appears the friends he invited may not have that kind of freedom, since they didn’t show.
As Mueller’s voice boomed all over the bar — even in the bathroom — the crowd mostly carried on their conversations while eating eggs, only reacting with audible groans when Republican Jim Jordan began his line of questioning. It should be noted that Hillary Clinton won 91 percent of the District of Columbia’s vote in 2016.
Is interest in the investigation fading? Have people moved on?
Not Thomas Holder, a man who told me he’s read about 70 percent of Mueller’s report but was hoping to get some more clarity.
“I think we need to get a little more out of him,” he said.
But why come out to a bar to get that clarity?
“I wanted to be around people to get their opinions,” said Holder. “I’ve been following it for the three years it’s been on, and I kind of just want to see what other people think as far as this whole debacle.”
When I first arrived at Shaw’s Tavern, I noticed a group of six sitting at a round table, clicking away at their laptops, poring over spreadsheets. I figured they were politically involved somehow, and before I left I asked what they did.
“We work for a presidential campaign,” one replied coyly.
Be on the lookout for any Moulton campaign ads that come out of today’s proceedings, or fundraising emails with Mueller-related subject lines.
Not all the Mueller watchers were D.C. residents. One couple, in town visiting from Washington state, sat at a table with their daughter. The mom wanted to watch somewhere, but since they couldn’t check into their hotel early, they came to the bar. (I hope they slept on that red-eye flight, since the hearing wasn’t offering much in the way of excitement.)
As an act of political theater, the morning testimony was mostly disappointing for anyone expecting fireworks. Mueller doesn’t speak in political soundbites. He is a careful former prosecutor who responded to questions with legalese, telling committee members that he wasn’t “at liberty to discuss” some matters. But it seemed like his most common response was: “Can you repeat the question?”
That last part wasn’t totally his fault. House Judiciary Committee ranking member Doug Collins of Georgia peppered Mueller with rapid-fire questions that seemed to blend together. As a Peach State native myself, I can confirm that the Republican from Gainesville is the fastest-talking Georgian I’ve ever heard, but he also did it with a drawl.