WASHINGTON — Former special counsel Robert Mueller will testify before two House committees this week, a historic event expected to highlight the conclusions of his yearslong investigation into the Russian attack on the last U.S. presidential election.
It is also roundly expected to be a political spectacle.
Democrats hope to seize on the televised opportunity to have Mueller, a distinguished former FBI director, elaborate on misconduct by President Donald Trump as he tried unsuccessfully to shut down the investigation that he thought would doom his presidency, although he was never charged with a crime.
“The reality is that Donald Trump repeatedly attempted to interfere with the investigation into this attack on our democracy that was designed to help him get elected,” said Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who is heading a separate subcommittee investigation into the president’s business dealings.
Mueller is likely to be grilled by Republicans on the origins of the investigation and perceived political biases of his special counsel team. Republicans want to diminish the influence of public opinion by Mueller’s televised appearance.
GOP lawmakers claim the committee hearings are Democratic political theater with the 2020 elections as a backdrop.
“If you are against the president, you have two years’ worth of material to get you all the way through and beyond,” said Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., a former member of the Judiciary Committee.
“This is not new,” he said.
No one expects a bombshell from the hearings.
And the historical significance?
“Like the Supreme Court said about pornography, we’ll know it when we see it — the hearing, that is,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor.
The significance could be determined based on whether members elicit new revelations, or whether the hearing turns boring because Mueller is just quoting himself from the report, said Sabato, author of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, published by the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“I’ll grant you, a large majority of the members of Congress haven’t bothered to read the report. And almost no one beyond a handful of activists outside Congress has really studied it. So even repeating his conclusions will seem new to a lot of viewers,” Sabato told the Review-Journal.
The hearings were scheduled for July 15 but moved to this Wednesday to accommodate both Democratic and Republican lawmakers who sought more time for questioning. Mueller agreed to their requests.
Limit testimony to report
The jockeying among House Democrats, Mueller and the Justice Department shows just how important the stakes are in having the special counsel sit before two committees, Judiciary and Intelligence, and answer questions about the investigation’s conclusions as well as methods of the probe.
Mueller said in his only public comments on the 448-report that, if he were to be subpoenaed, he would testify only to what he has already written and submitted to the Justice Department, a document that was redacted before it was released to the public.
“The report is my testimony,” Mueller said.
Democrats want him to explain his conclusions to a listening and viewing public.
“This testimony will ensure that many more people will read the report and see the facts for themselves,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Pelosi said “our national security is being threatened and the American people need answers.”
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said Mueller’s testimony was crucial because the White House has blocked many of the key witnesses interviewed by the special counsel from appearing before the two committees.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., the ranking Republican on the Judiciary panel, accused the Democrats of milking the process for political purposes, with numerous hearings with experts and law professors testifying about constitutional issues.
“The problem here is we are just dragging this out,” Collins said.
But legal experts agree that Mueller’s testimony is likely to enlighten members of the public who do not have the time to read and absorb the dense, two-part report submitted to the Justice Department.
“I think it’s important, even if he just reads from the report, because most people are not going to read the whole thing,” said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond School of Law professor of constitutional law.
Downplaying the conclusions
Following the submission of the report, Attorney General William Barr gave a summation of the findings favorable to the president. Barr downplayed the special counsel’s detailing of the president’s behavior and a decision not to charge Trump with obstruction of justice, Democrats claim.
Mueller found no instance in which the president colluded with Russian officials involved in the attack on the election process, but the special counsel left to Congress the decision on whether to further investigate and charge Trump with obstruction.
Tobias, a founding faculty member of the Boyd Law School at UNLV, said allowing Mueller the opportunity to testify about the findings would cut through partisan and bureaucratic clutter.
“I think it’s important to the American people to hear from him,” Tobias said. “Hear it from the horse’s mouth.”
Barr told reporters at a news conference this year that he would not object to Mueller testifying before Congress. That was before the White House sought to block testimony from former and current aides and administration officials.
Mueller resigned after completing his report.
Barr cleared the president of any obstruction charges and has since become critical of House Democrats who have subpoenaed Mueller to testify before the Judiciary and Intelligence panels.
The hearing could likely lead to an impeachment inquiry, which Nadler said he will conduct if facts bear out the need to begin that process. About one-third of House Democrats have openly backed impeachment.
No Nevadans call for impeachment
Nevada Democrats Titus, Rep. Susie Lee and Rep. Steven Horsford support Pelosi’s approach to let the committees sort out facts before a political decision to launch an impeachment inquiry is made.
Last week Titus voted to refer an impeachment bill by Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, to the Judiciary Committee for consideration. Lee, Horsford and Amodei voted with Pelosi and Republicans to table or kill the bill on the House floor.
Any impeachment effort by the Democrat-controlled House would likely die in the GOP-led Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called for Congress to move on after the special counsel investigation was completed.
McConnell pointedly said “case closed” this year when Mueller filed his report and Barr cleared the president of obstruction charges.