Quizzing Mueller gives Democrats a fresh chance to hit at Trump

Billy House and Chris Strohm
Bloomberg News

With Donald Trump’s impeachment as the prize that some Democrats covet, and others fear, Robert Mueller will finally sit down on Wednesday for five hours of questioning before two House committees.

The reluctant witness won’t make it easy. So Democrats on the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees have been strategizing over how to draw out the former special counsel, who has said he has no intention of going beyond the findings in the 448-page report he completed in March.

In this May 29, 2019, file photo, special counsel Robert Mueller speaks at the Department of Justice Wednesday, in Washington, about the Russia investigation.

Intelligence panel Democrats have even conducted mock hearings, with a staff member playing the taciturn former FBI director and lawmakers practicing how to press him for details in the few minutes each will get, while restraining the urge to deliver lectures.

“You will find little or no editorializing or speechifying by members – I hope,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Judiciary Committee Democrat from Maryland who predicted “visual aids” will be provided for a national audience watching the testimony on live television.

Mueller’s appearance may be a make-or-break moment for House Democrats to deliver on their promises to investigate Trump and those around him. Their efforts have been frustrated at every turn so far by the White House’s refusal to turn over documents or allow testimony by past and current Trump aides and advisers.

Their ultimate goal is also in question. Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York said this month that “articles of impeachment are under consideration” as part of the committee’s investigation. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has remained firm in her conviction that impeachment by the House would be futile – and politically damaging – unless dramatic new evidence emerges that would lead to the president’s removal from office by the Republican-controlled Senate.

“Let’s listen. Let’s see where the facts take us,” she said last week. Suggesting the Mueller testimony risks turning into a political circus, Pelosi added, “And let us have this be as dignified as our Constitution would require.”

In a division of labor, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee will focus during their panel’s three-hour hearing Wednesday morning on Mueller’s finding that he couldn’t “exonerate” Trump on obstructing justice and the special counsel’s seeming hint that Congress ultimately has the constitutional power to make that determination.

According to an official familiar with their plans, Judiciary Democrats will explore specific allegations cited in Mueller’s report – including that Trump ordered then-White House Counsel Don McGahn to have Mueller removed and then to lie about it, that the president ordered former campaign aide Corey Lewandowski to tell Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the Russia inquiry to concerns about future elections and that Trump sought to interfere with cooperation by witnesses Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen.

Raskin said he might ask Mueller “why he felt he needed to write letters to protest” Attorney General William Barr’s “misstatement of the contents of the report.”

For the Intelligence panel’s two-hour session on Wednesday afternoon, Democrats plan to concentrate on Mueller’s account of contacts between Russians and people involved in Trump’s 2016 campaign even though the special counsel said he didn’t find sufficient evidence that there was a conspiracy to participate in the Russian effort to help Trump win the presidency.

House Republicans will get almost half the five hours of testimony, and they’ve indicated that they will play it by ear as to whether to treat Mueller as a friendly witness or an adversary, depending on how narrowly he hews to the specifics of his report.

Some Republican lawmakers have joined in the president’s call to investigate whether the Russia inquiry was tainted early on by anti-Trump bias. Others have endorsed Trump’s dismissal of the continued Democratic inquiries as a “waste of time.”

But Democrats said even a just-the-facts recitation by Mueller will bring alive the findings of a report so thick that few Americans – including members of Congress – have really read it. Anti-Trump celebrities have even staged dramatic readings of the report in the effort to focus attention on it.

“Most people don’t know what’s in his report,” said Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, a Democrat on the Intelligence Committee who favors opening an impeachment inquiry. He said Mueller testifying firsthand could “raise a few eyebrows.”