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.