Everything old is new again. Or so former special counsel Robert Mueller may hope when he testifies before the House judiciary and intelligence committees on July 17.
Mueller already said at a press conference last month that any testimony he gives Congress “would not go beyond” his final report, released in April, which Mueller said “speaks for itself.”
But in pressing for Mueller to testify, House Democrats may not be banking on explosive new revelations, but a translation of a lengthy report most Americans have not read into a more compelling, and easily-digestible set of testimony on camera.
When Mueller announced he was resigning from the Justice Department last month, he briefly summarized what the report found. His short statement, even though he took no questions taken from the press, was able to move the conversation forward, adding to a slow but steady trickle of House members who publicly support an impeachment inquiry.
With much of Congress and the public largely in the dark about the contacts Mueller found between Russia and the Trump campaign, as well as the 10 instances of potential obstruction of justice by Trump that Mueller and his team documented, next month’s hearing will likely be less revelation than recitation — an unpacking of Mueller’s dense, dry government report into pithy soundbites made to be repeated ad nauseam on cable news.
Even many members of the judiciary and intelligence committees either haven’t read Mueller’s 400-plus-page report, or would not say if they had, according to a survey by The Washington Post last month. The numbers for Congress as a whole are bound to be even worse — let alone the general public.
“Few members of Congress even read Mueller’s report; their minds were made up based on partisan affiliation,” Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), a vocal critic of President Donald Trump, tweeted after he called for the president’s impeachment.
The committees announced Mueller’s testimony Tuesday night after the Judiciary Committee issued him a subpoena last week.
In an interview last month, House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) — who would oversee any impeachment hearings in the House — called impeachment “a political act” and said “you cannot impeach a president if the American people will not support it.”
As Democrats on the intelligence and judiciary committees try to use Mueller’s testimony to make that public case, key aspects of the report could help them make their case.
“We would so state”
One of the most famous phrases in the report is, “if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.” This statement directly refutes claims by the president that the report clears him of all wrongdoing. Mueller referred to this sentence in his May statement, and it was one of the more compelling parts of it. House Democrats can ask him about this several times, and though he can stick to the material in the report, he can explain in more detail the thought behind this declaration.
Half of Mueller’s report details the investigation into whether Trump committed crimes by acting to obstruct justice. They detail 10 such acts in this part of the report. Hearing Mueller explain any of these incidents, or summarizing all of them makes it harder for the president’s allies to sweep the implications of the report under the rug. It will be impossible not to hear a former FBI director talk about the president trying to get the FBI to let Michael Flynn get away with crimes, or Trump’s stated rationale for firing fellow former FBI Director James Comey. If he is asked about them, Mueller will tick through the rest of the things Trump did in order to interfere with the investigation.
Trump will talk about the fact that the report did not find him guilty of collusion whenever he gets the chance. Not only is collusion not a crime, the report does not completely vindicate the president or his campaign in the section of the report that addresses this topic. The report shows the Trump campaign was very open to Russian interference, with the hope that it could help Trump win the 2016 election. Hearing Mueller answer questions about this, especially as the threats to the integrity of the 2020 election mount, could be jarring and powerful testimony. Hearing Mueller go into detail about the specific contacts Trump operatives like George Papadopoulos and Paul Manafort had with people affiliated with the Russian government will also be key. It’s not normal for presidential campaigns to, as Manafort did, share polling information with foreign entities.
In his statement, Mueller did not talk about impeachment, but his report does. It famously says, “Congress has authority to prohibit a president’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.”
In a footnote, the report gets down to specific options Congress could take. “A possible remedy through impeachment for abuses of power would not substitute for potential criminal liability after a President leaves office. Impeachment would remove a President from office, but would not address the underlying culpability of the conduct or serve the usual purposes of the criminal law,” footnote 1091 begins. “Impeachment is also a drastic and rarely invoked remedy, and Congress is not restricted to relying only on impeachment, rather than making criminal law applicable to a former President, as OLC has recognized.”
If House Democrats ask, Mueller could talk about the options the footnote says Congress has to pursue justice for abuses of power.