Congress And The Country Prepare For Mueller Time

On Wednesday, much of official Washington, and likely a good part of the country itself, will pause to watch what are likely to biggest hearings since the late 1980s.

Less than forty-eight hours from now Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has not been seen in public since he held a press conference back in May announcing the end of the investigation that had begun just a few months after President Trump took office into Russian interference in the election, will appear before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees to answer questions regarding that report and his investigation. Needless to say, this testimony which was originally scheduled to take place last week but was advanced a week to allow for extra time for questioning, is widely anticipated on both sides of the aisle.

Among Democrats, there is the rather obvious hope that Mueller will put a human face on a report that most Americans have not read and put before the American public the truth about what his report says rather than the distorted representations that have come from Attorney General Barr and other members of the Administration. Additionally, to a large extent, the testimony represents what The New York Times a make or break moment for Democrats hoping to put the investigation back at the center of the political conversation:

WASHINGTON — For more than two years, Democrats have hoped that Robert S. Mueller III would show the nation that President Trump is unfit for office — or at the very least, severely damage his re-election prospects. On Wednesday, in back-to-back hearings with the former special counsel, that wish could face its final make-or-break moment.

Lawmakers choreographing the hearings before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees warn that bombshell disclosures are unlikely. But over about five hours of nationally televised testimony, they hope to use Mr. Mueller, the enigmatic and widely respected former F.B.I. director, to refashion his legalistic 448-page report into a vivid, compelling narrative of Russia’s attempts to undermine American democracy, the Trump campaign’s willingness to accept Kremlin assistance and the president’s repeated and legally dubious efforts to thwart investigators.

For a party divided over how to confront Mr. Trump — liberals versus moderates, supporters of impeachment versus staunch opponents — the stakes could scarcely be higher.

“One way or the other, the Mueller hearing will be a turning point with respect to the effort to hold Donald Trump accountable for his reckless, degenerate, aberrant and possibly criminal behavior,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York, the House Democratic Caucus chairman and a member of the Judiciary Committee. “After the hearing, we will be able to have a better understanding of the pathway forward concerning our oversight responsibilities and the constitutional tools that are available to us.”

Partisans in both parties may already have made up their minds, but Democrats are counting on Mr. Mueller’s testimony to focus the broader public’s attention on the findings of his 22-month investigation — either to jumpstart a stalled impeachment push or electrify the campaign to make Mr. Trump a one-term president.

Even Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been a voice of caution on impeachment for much of the year, has tied the testimony to Democrats’ broader political prospects.

“This coming election, it is really an election that the fate of this country is riding on,” she told House Democrats at a private meeting recently, according to an aide who was there. “This presidency is an existential threat to our democracy and our country as we know it.”

(…)

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee will have the first opportunity, and they intend to dwell heavily on five of the most glaring episodes of possible obstruction of justice that Mr. Mueller documented in the second volume of his report. They include Mr. Trump’s direction to the former White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II to fire Mr. Mueller and then publicly lie about it; his request that Corey Lewandowski, a former campaign chief, ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reassert control of the investigation and limit its scope; and possible witness tampering to discourage two aides, Paul Manafort and Michael D. Cohen, from cooperating with investigators.

Many lawmakers, including Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, view the behavior in at least some of those episodes as reaching the threshold of high crimes and misdemeanors, established in the Constitution as grounds for impeachment. They will try to solicit Mr. Mueller’s views — tacitly or explicitly.

“The overwhelming majority of the American people are unfamiliar with the principal conclusions of the Mueller report, so that will be a starting point,” Mr. Jeffries said. “To the extent that Bob Mueller can explain his conclusions, particularly as it relates to possible criminal culpability of the president, that will be compelling information.”

Democrats on the Intelligence Committee will use the second hearing to highlight evidence from the report’s first volume about Russia’s social media disinformation and hacking operations during the 2016 campaign and high-profile contacts between Trump associates and Russians offering assistance to Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.

Republicans, meanwhile, are likely to try to use the time they have questioning Mueller to cast doubt about Mueller’s report and the integrity of his investigation, a line of questioning that seems unlikely to be appreciated by a man such as Mueller:

WASHINGTON — House Republicans have tried to chip away at the credibility of Robert S. Mueller III’s inquiry into Russia’s 2016 election interference since shortly after it began, savaging members of his investigative team as “angry Democrats,” and calling into question his impartiality.

But as they prepare to meet Mr. Mueller, the former special counsel, face to face on Wednesday at two high-stakes congressional hearings, some of the Republican Party’s loudest voices are urging caution against an aggressive confrontation. Victory, they say, could come with a light touch as much as pointed questioning.

“The obvious first question will be, ‘When did you know there was no coordination and no conspiracy?'” said Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of the Republicans’ most recognizable attack dogs. He now sees Mr. Mueller as the ideal mouthpiece to deliver the conclusion that the investigation found insufficient evidence to charge anyone with conspiring with Russia to influence the 2016 election.

Not every Republican is on board with a gentler approach. Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas rejected any suggestion he might pull his punches. “I can’t wait,” he said. Representative Matt Gaetz, a firebrand from Florida, pledged a pointed discussion of bias, which he has long maintained corrupted the investigation.

His goal for the hearing? “We are going to re-elect the president,” he said.

But with public opinion tilted against impeachment and Democrats’ investigations plodding along, many Republicans on the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees are contemplating a “do no harm” approach rather than putting a match to Mr. Mueller’s image. Better to try to look reasonable next to committee Democrats, who they believe will struggle to knock Mr. Mueller off his conclusions.

“He exonerated the president on the collusion issue and for anybody to go after him would seem silly to me,” said Representative Ken Buck, Republican of Colorado.

The strategy reflects two assumptions about Mr. Mueller’s appearance shared by lawmakers from both parties: first, that he will not take the bait to answer questions beyond the contents of his written report, and second, that his testimony before the House committees could be one of the most closely watched congressional performances in decades. For both parties, the hearings present an unusual chance to shape the views of a large number of Americans who have not read Mr. Mueller’s 448-page report, which was released in April.

The report did identify at least 10 episodes that could be construed as obstruction of justice, and Mr. Mueller pointedly declined to exonerate Mr. Trump. But he did not refer the president for prosecution either.

For Republicans, the hearings mean introducing a new audience to passages of the report more favorable to Mr. Trump, as well as to accusations that have become accepted truth on the right: Mr. Trump was the target of an unfair and rules-breaking investigation by law enforcement officials intent on upending first his campaign, then his presidency.

They are likely to question Mr. Mueller about inflammatory anti-Trump texts exchanged by two F.B.I. officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who helped start the bureau’s investigation of the Trump campaign and later joined Mr. Mueller’s team before the messages were discovered. Republicans intend to ask Mr. Mueller about the F.B.I.’s use of a salacious but unverified dossier of Trump-Russia connections to obtain a surveillance warrant on a former Trump campaign aide in 2016.

And they want to know why Mr. Mueller deviated from Justice Department regulations governing his work in declining to reach a decision on obstruction of justice but included unflattering information on Mr. Trump anyway.

What many Republicans want to try to avoid is making matters personal — the fewer “witch hunts” and incendiary accusations of a coup d’état by the so-called deep state, the better.

Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, promised “honest, pointed straightforward” questions for the special counsel but paused at the word “aggressive.”

Others cautioned against spending too much time fishing for Mr. Mueller to validate their concerns when he is unlikely to engage, or worse, could offer a convincing defense of his team.

“To me, it is not a question about whether or not we need those answers; it is whether this will be the proper forum or not,” said Representative Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana. “Strategically, can we get Mr. Mueller to address those issues in this forum? I have some doubts about that.”

Mueller, of course, is no stranger to Congressional testimony. As a Justice Department official under both President’s George H.W. Bush and, for a brief time, President Clinton and, of course, during the twelve years he served as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under Presidents George W. Bush and Obama, Mueller testified before Congress nearly 100 times as part of ordinary oversight hearings and other proceedings. Journalists who have reviewed those appearances have noted that Mueller was very much by the book and resisted being drawn into partisanship by one side or the other. If he takes that position on Wednesday, which seems likely, as well as the position he took at the end of May that any public testimony he might give would be limited to the four corners of his report. Both Republicans and Democrats would be wise to take him at his word in that regard.

For Democrats, that’s likely to mean that Mueller will not be providing them or the American people with any kind of “smoking gun” information that isn’t already part of his report. In that respect, it is important to note that the report stopped short of directly implicating the President in collusion but did not conclude that no collusion or criminal conspiracy did not take place. Additionally, the report’s second volume, which covered the obstruction of justice side of the investigation did not directly clear the President or any other Administration official. Indeed, as Mueller said in his May press appearance, ” “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” Mr. Mueller and his investigators wrote. “Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.” That, of course, leads to the logical conclusion that if Trump were not currently President, he most likely would have been indicted by the Special Counsel. Whether Mueller will come right out and say this, though, remains to be seen, but if he did it would be quite the political bombshell.

Whether Mueller will be willing to go into further detail regarding that statement, or other conclusions remains to be seen, but Democrats and the “Never Trump” crowd should probably tone down their expectations for these hearings. Mueller clearly wants the report to speak for itself, while House Democrats hope to be able to use testimony to familiarize Americans who have not read the report, which includes most of us, with what the investigation actually concluded and what that means for the legal and political future of the Trump Administration.

On the Republican side of the aisle, the concern ought to be placed at being careful about being seen as attacking Mueller and his investigation too harshly in order to curry favor with the President and the Republican base. While doing so will no doubt get them much positive publicity from Fox News Channel and the other outlets of the Trump propaganda network that used to be conservative media it creates the risk of pushing Mueller too far and leading him to push back. In that respect, the GOP ought to look at the disastrous Benghazi investigation and specifically the day-long testimony that Hillary Clinton endured in October 2015 in front of the Select Committee set up to investigate that matter. By the time that was over, it was clear that Clinton had basically torn the entire GOP case to shreds and, indeed, after that day there was barely a peep out of the Republican House or any of the candidates for President, including Trump, about an investigation that had basically been utterly discredited. Republican efforts to discredit Mueller and his investigation are likely to backfire and leave the GOP with egg on its face.

That being said, as I have said before, I am unsure that the format of these hearings is going to be very useful at getting to the truth. Following long-established practice, each member of both committees will get roughly five minutes to question the witness This is far from ideal:

First of all, most of these members don’t really know what questions to ask and instead use their time to pontificate for the voters back him. This will be especially true of Republicans on both committees, who will seek to use their time to undermine Mueller and his investigation and to advance the ridiculous conspiracy theories that have been advanced by the President, his sycophants in Congress, and his propagandists at Fox News and elsewhere in the conservative media. A more ideal situation would be for the questioning to be handled, or largely handled by the staff attorneys for the committees, who are generally speaking more skilled at questioning under these circumstances than individual members. Those of you old enough to remember may recall that this is how the questioning was generally handled during the committee hearings surrounding the Iran/Contra investigation. Barring that, individual members could yield their time to the member(s) who have been litigators themselves and thus better trained to ask the right questions and, more importantly, the right follow-up questions. For better or worse, though, that won’t happen this time. These hearings are as much about individual members getting television time for the constituents back home as they are about finding out the truth, perhaps more.

In any event, speculating about what Mueller will say on Wednesday is pointless. He’ll say what he has to say, and he’s likely to provide as little information as it takes to answer the questions presented to him. It will be up to the Committee members to make sure that they asked the right questions and allow Mueller adequate time to answer them and let the chips fall where they may.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Donald Trump, Law and the Courts, Politicians, Russia Investigation, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I don’t think there is going to be much here…but even if Mueller stays within the four corners of his report, he is going to make Individual-1 and Baghdad Barr out to be liars. Of course, no supporters of Individual-1 care if he broke the law, much less lied about it. So in the end…meaningless. This is just the Democrats waving their fists.

  2. Gustopher says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: I’m hoping you are wrong about the impact, but even if you’re not, at least the Democrats are waving their fists in the right direction.

  3. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Gustopher:

    I’m hoping you are wrong about the impact

    me too…

  4. Kathy says:

    Following long-established practice, each member of both committees will get roughly five minutes to question the witness

    I don’t understand why that’s become the standard, or why Congress puts up with it. The Iran-Contra hearings were nothing like that.

  5. Tyrell says:

    @Kathy: Those are good points. “Five minutes to question the witness”: done for a reason – control. Director Mueller has a script that he must stick to. There are factors and issues about this that are not for the public and will remain secret. What we see is of course a cover and a diversion. If this thing was legit they would take questions from the public. They are trying to get the public to look one way while they do something in the other direction (watch Penn and Teller). We got an indication at what is going on with Director Mueller’s strange press conference a few weeks ago. He was almost incoherent.
    Most of the people I talk to around here have not followed this. The current topic of conversations down at the snack bar is the heat wave and everyone’s beach trips.

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  6. SenyorDave says:

    Justice Department officials have communicated to Robert Mueller that the department expects him to limit his congressional testimony this week to the public findings of his 448-page report, according to one current and one former U.S. official familiar with the preparations.
    In extensive discussions since the former special counsel was subpoenaed to testify on June 25, department officials have emphasized that they consider any evidence he gathered throughout the course of his investigation to be “presumptively privileged” and shielded from public disclosure.

    The lengths that Barr goes to protect Trump are amazing. If Mueller plays by their rules there is not much point in his testimony.

  7. Guarneri says:

    @SenyorDave:

    You may recall it was Mueller himself who originally set the standard. Further, that restriction works against Republican inquiries as well.

    Nice try. No sale, Mr. Conspiracy.

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  8. michael reynolds says:

    @Guarneri:
    Hey, speaking of conspiracies, I keep missing your no-doubt convincing answer to my simple question, posed a half dozen times:

    What is the plausible, innocent explanation for the fact that Trump refuses to have any other American present when he meets with Putin?

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  9. michael reynolds says:

    @Guarneri:
    Oh, and now we have a new one.

    Give me the plausible, innocent explanation for why Trump is trying to get Mueller not to talk to Congress?

    Come on, Drew, you want to sit at the big boy table. Man up. Give it a try. Show us your work.

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  10. CSK says:

    Let me add a question to Michael’s:

    Why is Trump so desperate to keep his tax returns hidden?

  11. Tyrell says:

    @Gustopher: If George Washington was president, Nadler and some of the others would be investigating him; that is how bad things are up there.
    A two thirds vote of the Senate should be required to approve any investigation of a president or member of Congress. Followed by a two thirds vote of the states. That would help prevent these political motivated investigations; and I am including the Starr investigation also.
    An investigation committee should be made up of independent outside D.C. people, not career politicians or bureaucrats. No more of this Washington insider stuff.

  12. Guarneri says:

    From the department of justice.

    “Dear Mr. Mueller: I write in response to your July 10, 2019 letter concerning the testimonial subpoenas you received from the House Judiciary Committee (HJC) and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI).

    Your letter requests that the Department provide you with guidance concerning privilege or other legal bars applicable to potential testimony in connection with those subpoenas.”
    After stating the decision to testify is Mueller’s to make, the letter continues: “But the Department agrees with your stated position that your testimony should be unnecessary under the circumstances. The Department generally does not permit prosecutors such as you to appear and testify before Congress regarding their investigative and prosecutorial activity.”

    Heh.

  13. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Tyrell:

    A two thirds vote of the Senate should be required

    What you are proposing is that the Senate be required to approve oversight of the executive branch, a duty prescribed by the Constitution.

    You seem to have bought into the Trump policy that ‘ never again shall people have the right to criticize the president’.

    The United States rejected the dominance of a monarch in the Declaration of Independence, we fought a war over the tyrannical rein of monarch. I think George Washington approved.

  14. Jen says:

    I have exactly zero expectations that this will amount to anything. Mueller handed Congress a roadmap, and stopped just short of typing in large font: “I can’t indict a sitting President according to the DOJ, so here’s everything you need to do your jobs.”

    Meanwhile, almost no one in Congress has read the report, and neither has the public.

  15. Kathy says:
  16. michael reynolds says:

    @Guarneri:
    Your fear of those questions reveals you for what you are: a liar and a coward.

    Simple questions are kryptonite to you because you know you can’t answer them. And you know you can’t answer them because the racist, pussy-grabbing prick you worship is a criminal and a traitor and you know it.

    Funny, I never have a problem answering questions. None of us do. Just you and your Trumpaloons.

    #Cult45. Go on, Drew, lie again and tell me you don’t know what that is.

  17. Guarneri says:

    St Mueller strikes again. They hadn’t even secured office space and they knew things were falling apart.

    https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2019-07-23/mueller-attack-dog-weissmann-begged-ukrainian-oligarch-trump-dirt-exchange-dropped

  18. Guarneri says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Blah, blah, blah.

  19. michael reynolds says:

    Ah hah hah hah! Zero Hedge. Moron.

  20. CSK says:

    ZeroHedge is about as reliable a news source as The Gateway Pundit.

  21. Bob@Youngstown says:

    @Kathy: Exactly, and while he wasn’t overjoyed, he understood that investigation was an integral function of a government by the people. Stark contrast with the current occupant of the Presidency.

  22. rachel says:

    @Guarneri: Zero Hedge; LOL.

  23. Teve says:
  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Teve: Again today, thanks for the link. Entertaining is a good description.

  25. Jen says:

    @Teve: That was truly fun reading. Thanks!

  26. Gustopher says:

    @Tyrell:

    If George Washington was president, Nadler and some of the others would be investigating him; that is how bad things are up there.

    Now I am wondering if there was congressional oversight of the Whiskey Rebellion, and what form that took…

  27. Tyrell says:

    The news media seems to be building this thing up like it is the Sermon on the Mount, President George Washington’s farewell address, and President Kennedy’s Cuban crisis nationwide address (the scariest week in world history)all rolled into one. In reality this will be a passing leaf in the stream, about as important as the local mayor announcing the dog contest winners. The lottery announcements will get a lot more attention from the people out here.
    One news report has members of Congress busy practicing and rehearsing their lines. That just goes to show that this thing is just another put-on.

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  28. Matt says:

    @Gustopher: That was actually my first guess as to what the investigation was about.

    So I’m basically in the same club as you.

  29. Teve says:

    RolfRules
    @RulesRolf
    ·
    5m
    Replying to
    @PreetBharara
    Agreed. Mueller is the one who needs legal counsel tomorrow and moving forward, not Trump. The appointment as special counsel was a “licensed to lie” for Robert Mueller, Andrew Weissman and their whole team, or so they thought. But tomorrow comes.
    @SidneyPowell1
    knows.