WASHINGTON ― For a congressional hearing on one of the most consequential documents in American political history, Thursday’s House Judiciary Committee session on Robert Mueller’s special counsel report wasn’t exactly a hot ticket. If anyone wanted to watch four academics testify about a 448-page report examining Russian interference in the 2016 election and President Donald Trump’s attempts to intervene in the investigation, there were plenty of seats available.
The sparsely attended hearing raised questions about House Democrats’ strategy for investigating the Trump administration, which has been stonewalling congressional oversight at every turn.
Attorney General William Barr bailed on a scheduled hearing. The White House blocked testimony from former counsel Don McGahn. And Mueller himself has sought to avoid testifying before Congress, saying his report is his testimony and encouraging Americans to read it for themselves.
But a lot of Americans seem to be waiting for the movie version. The Mueller report’s release really didn’t do much to sway public opinion, and just 14% told HuffPost/YouGov that they had personally read any of it.
So, there were questions this week about why the Judiciary Committee allowed former senior Trump adviser Hope Hicks to testify behind closed doors. Hicks’ public testimony would have made compelling television, even though she avoided revealing much that was new. She was accompanied by two deputy White House counsels, who objected more than 130 times to questions about her time in the administration. Having that scene play out on cable news could’ve swayed some opinions.
Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) said members of the Trump administration are well aware that public testimony would be compelling, and that’s why they’re so dead-set against letting it happen.
“The administration understands that well, which is why they decided to destroy our ability to get fact witnesses to come in and give us honest testimony. It’s a scandalous turn of events, but it’s consistent with their spectacular disrespect for the rule of law,” Raskin told HuffPost.
“Of course we want fact witnesses,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said. “That is exactly what the Trump administration is trying to do everything they can to prevent.”
“I find it amusing when my colleagues, my Republican colleagues, say, ‘These aren’t fact witnesses!’ Well, help us get the fact witnesses then! Go call the president, your best buddy, and tell him to stop putting forward claims like complete immunity for senior advisers,” Jayapal said.
In the meantime, Jayapal said holding hearings was still important to educate the public on the contents of the Mueller report as much as possible.
“People are confused for a reason. People are confused because the attorney general intercepted the Mueller report before it got to the people and made all kinds of misleading statements about what was in the Mueller report,” Jayapal said, referring to the three-week period when Barr’s incomplete and misleading summary of the report allowed Trump and his supporters to steer the public narrative about the investigations’ findings.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said there’s a method to what some critics see as madness. He told Politico this week that Hicks’ testimony “very much played into our hands,” because it will help illustrate to a federal judge the consequences of the Trump administration’s stonewalling.
“I understand, obviously, people are getting frustrated,” Nadler told the outlet. “‘Why aren’t you having fact witnesses? Why are you having John Dean and former prosecutors pontificate?’ Well the fact of the matter is, we can’t get fact witnesses until we win in court.”
Nadler said he was drafting a lawsuit against McGahn, a key witness in the Mueller report who obeyed the Trump administration’s directive not to testify. McGahn told Mueller’s team that Trump told him to inform then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (who was overseeing the Mueller investigation) that Mueller was too conflicted to head the special counsel probe, which McGahn said he interpreted as a directive to have Mueller fired.
Though many would have preferred to see the testimony of administration figures like Hicks happen in public, Judiciary Committee Democrats said they understand that Nadler is in a tough spot. Raskin, along with committee members like Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), were hesitant in interviews to place any blame on the chairman.
“The chairman is doing whatever he can under very trying circumstances,” Raskin said. And in the meantime, members said it’s important to keep educating Americans about the contents of Mueller’s report.
“It is very much an educational process,” Jaypal said. “It’s a long report. We have all read it because we’re here in the committee, but I don’t think the vast majority of Americans have read it, and I think they’re relying on other people to tell them what’s in the Mueller report.”