WASHINGTON — For more than two years, Democrats have hoped that Robert Mueller would show the nation that President Donald Trump is unfit for office — or at the very least, severely damage his reelection 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 Mueller, the enigmatic and widely respected former FBI director, to refashion his legalistic 448-page report into a vivid, compelling narrative of Russia’s attempts to undermine U.S. 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 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 Rep. 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 Mueller’s testimony to focus the broader public’s attention on the findings of his 22-month investigation — either to jump-start a stalled impeachment push or electrify the campaign to make 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.”
Democratic hopes are rising on an unlikely horse. Mueller has made his reluctance to testify widely known, and his appearance could easily backfire. If the hearings fail to sizzle, the viewing public could be left agreeing with the president that it is time to move on.
“A lot of public attitudes have hardened on the subject of Trump and Russia,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, chairman of the Intelligence Committee. “So I’m realistic about the impact of any one hearing on public attitudes.”
No matter what happens, House investigators say their inquiries into possible obstruction of justice by Trump and other accusations of administration malfeasance will go on, and those inquiries could yet inflict political damage on the president’s reelection prospects or even re-energize impeachment talk.
But perhaps no other witness can command the authority of Mueller, who conducted his work in silence, above the political maw of Washington, and delivered it this spring with a modicum of words and drama.
Mueller is unlikely to level new charges Wednesday against the president. Unlike Leon Jaworski, the Watergate prosecutor who persuaded a grand jury to name President Richard M. Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator, or Ken Starr, the independent counsel who made a convincing case for President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Mueller has left a more ambiguous trail.
His report detailed dozens of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, painting a portrait of a campaign willing to accept foreign assistance. But it did not find enough evidence to charge anyone with conspiring with the Russians. And though Mueller pointedly declined to exonerate Trump from obstructing his investigation, he took the view that Justice Department policies prevented him from even considering whether to charge.
Mueller, 74, is unlikely to change course now — particularly after he used his lone public appearance in May to clarify that any testimony he delivered would not stray from his report.
“We go in eyes wide open,” said Rep. Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. “His style under the most effusive of circumstances is almost monosyllabic.”
Knowing that Mueller is unlikely to take the bait on more explosive questions, Democrats see their role as coaxing him through some of the most damaging passages of his report.
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 Mueller documented in the second volume of his report. They include Trump’s direction to White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire 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 Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, 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 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,” 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 Trump’s presidential campaign.
Republicans are expressing little concern about the Democrats’ strategy. Mueller’s style and his prosecutorial conclusions will “blow up in their face,” said Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, who helped prosecute the impeachment case against Clinton.
“Back then, Starr came out pretty clearly and said that he felt there were impeachable offenses that had been committed,” Chabot said. “Now we have a special counsel who, at this point, is saying no. We invested so much time and money and taxpayer dollars in this that we should give considerable weight in that.”
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Time is not on the side of impeachment advocates. Congress’s six-week August recess is at hand. A fiscal deadline is likely to dominate Congress when it returns, and with the Iowa caucuses Feb. 3, the nation’s attention is likely to shift toward the 2020 presidential campaign. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that support for opening impeachment hearings based on current evidence had dropped among registered voters from June to July, to just 21%. Fifty percent said it was time for the country to move on.
Support in the House is somewhat higher and continues to grow with every fresh outrage Trump provides the Democrats, including an across-the-board refusal to comply with the House’s investigations and comments that four liberal congresswomen of color should “go back” to their own countries. A handful of House Democrats this week announced their support for impeachment, pushing the total toward 90, according to a New York Times tally.
And Nadler formally acknowledged for the first time this month that impeachment articles were “under consideration as part of the committee’s investigation, although no final determination has been made.”
But the announced support is still far short of the 218 needed to impeach the president and send charges to the Senate for a trial, and moderate Democrats from Republican-leaning districts have quietly fumed at the position they are being put in.
As the most powerful Democrat against impeachment, Pelosi fears an attempt to oust Trump would backfire on Democrats and further divide the country unless her party can build broader support. She has counseled lawmakers “to have a level of calmness, no drama” about the questioning at the Mueller hearing, according to a senior aide, and she and her deputies will be watching how or if public sentiment shifts after Wednesday.
No need to “hype it,” she has advised — Mueller’s words will carry power.