WASHINGTON ― Special counsel Robert Mueller’s public testimony next month could turn more Democrats into impeachment backers ― or it could be a waste of time.
Support for opening an impeachment inquiry has been building in the House, with close to 80 Democrats saying the House should hold hearings on impeaching President Donald Trump. But the announcement earlier this week that Mueller would testify could have halted the progress, as members can now wait to hear what the former special counsel has to say.
Mueller has already said that he’s not going to stray much from what he’s already written ― namely that there’s overwhelming evidence the president repeatedly obstructed justice ― which wasn’t enough to convince House leaders they should impeach in the first place.
Democrats are aware of the contradiction.
“It may be fairly dramatic,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who is not one of the 80 Democrats who publicly supports impeachment. “On the other hand, it could be kind of a ho-hum thing.”
What Democrats are hoping is that, at the very least, people are so unfamiliar with the Mueller report’s findings that just airing the findings will sway the public.
And if it doesn’t, then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will have shaved nearly a month off the clock. As time goes by, and the 2020 election gets closer, Pelosi’s argument in favor of beating Trump electorally will get more and more relevant.
The hearing will be an inflection point, said impeachment supporter Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.).
“Whether he says anything that is more significant than what he wrote in the report is probably too much to hope for,” Kildee said. “In response to specific questions, even if he uses the same language in the report, it takes away the ability to create a context around his words that confirms the sort of false narrative that’s been out there.”
A high-profile, televised reading of Mueller’s findings will certainly contradict Trump’s repeated verse of “no collusion, no obstruction.” Mueller found that the Trump campaign had plenty of contact with Russian agents, though he explicitly notes how they didn’t look at the question of “collusion” and didn’t find sufficient evidence to charge anyone with “conspiracy.” Mueller also laid out 10 separate instances where Trump may have obstructed justice, including occasions where he instructed then-White House counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller and then told McGahn to lie about it.
In short, members think the hearing could be damning in the court of public opinion, which changed little immediately after the Mueller report came out.
“What he doesn’t fully appreciate is most Americans are only vaguely aware of the findings of that report,” Connolly said of Mueller. “Most Americans have not read 408 pages plus annexes. So when he testifies, and reiterates what’s in the report, it’s going to be news to a lot of people.”
Mueller previously said that if he’s forced to testify, he would only repeat what he already presented in the report. So as much faith as Democrats want to put in Mueller, they likely have the substance of his testimony now. If they want something better, they might be disappointed.
When Mueller gave a press conference in May, he demonstrated his ability to split hairs and refuse to draw conclusions. Mueller stated that the president did not not commit crimes ― crimes that were laid out in great detail in the report, with accompanying legal analysis ― and then left it to others to conclude whether the president did, in fact, commit the crimes that he did not not commit.
“After that investigation, if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said. “We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime.”
(Mueller grounded his refusal to say the president committed crimes in an old Justice Department memo that says the president can’t be indicted.)
The irony of the Democratic position of waiting for Mueller and demanding more investigations is they’ve downplayed Mueller’s already damning findings. They essentially said there wasn’t enough yet to move forward with an impeachment inquiry.
So if Mueller does not provide a landmark turning point and instead sticks to what he’s already written, it may be difficult for the Democrats who have held back on impeachment calls to reverse course.
“I’ve had the same position all the way through,” said Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), a non-impeacher. “I’ve got great confidence in the Judiciary Committee and its chairman, so I’m going to wait until they finish their work. ”
House Judiciary chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has said the hearing will have a profound impact. “Just if he says what was in the report and says it to the American people so they hear it, that would be very, very important,” Nadler told reporters this week.
Several Democrats who don’t support impeachment said they wouldn’t base their decision on the hearing. “I think we need to be tempered about our expectations,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said.
Several also said they were glad the hearing would allow people to see Mueller unfiltered, though the May press conference provided the same opportunity. Maybe it will be different with lawmakers asking questions.
“We haven’t really had to have that ‘Now what?’ moment,” Kildee said. “This will maybe create it.”