The House Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry into President Trump are facing a critical new test this week: making sure that their slate of public hearings—a bona fide national media event that will be watched by millions—lives up to the hype and clearly communicates their case for Trump’s wrongdoing to the American people.
Looming large over Democrats as they plan, though, is the example of what happened the last time they faced the same test. Less than four months ago, Special Counsel Robert Mueller testified before the House Judiciary Committee about the findings of his two-year investigation into Trump’s contact with Russia in 2016 and its aftermath.
The July 24 hearing was as intensely hyped as any Capitol Hill event in recent years, carried live across TV and dissected in countless articles. Ultimately, after hours of halting testimony from Mueller—who barely ventured outside the content of his report—it was clear the day didn’t meet the impossibly high expectations. Republicans gleefully proclaimed it a dud, a conclusion many Democrats privately echoed.
Now the Ukraine scandal has reinvigorated Democrats’ oversight of the president, revealing presidential conduct that has brought them far closer to impeachment than Mueller’s investigation ever did. The public witness testimony, which kicks off this week with appearances from career diplomats Bill Taylor, George Kent, and Marie Yovanovitch, is the inquiry’s official coming-out party.
This round has all the trappings of Mueller, including wall-to-wall TV coverage, plus a significant heaping of gravitas as the first public impeachment hearings in 20 years. But Democrats insist the proceedings will, and must, meet those historic expectations—and what they have learned from Mueller is influencing their plan.
Part of that plan is structuring the hearings in a way that maximizes the impact of what the witnesses have to say. Another part is not doing anything to overhype the event and just letting the significance of the moment speak for itself.
According to Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), who will question witnesses as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, “some of us, and some outside players, overhyped the Mueller hearing.”
“I think in this case, the risk is a lot lower because you’ve got three consummate professionals who are going to tell their stories,” he said. “These are really good witnesses… I think it’s going to be a really interesting story for the American people.”
Within the Democratic caucus, the sense that they struck out on Mueller is only fueling their already considerable desire to get this round right. “It’s a ‘go big or go home’ mind-set,” said one House Democratic aide. “This is our shot—we shouldn’t blow it and have it be like Mueller.”
A second Democratic aide put it another way: “This is a second chance, a second bite at the apple.”
The structure of the impeachment hearings, Democrats say, should go a long way toward making their second chance count. When Mueller testified, he was hit with five minutes of questioning from each member of a packed committee dais—24 Democratic and 17 Republican members. While Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) was able to elicit some valuable responses at the top of the hearing, the value declined from there as rank-and-file members struggled to get much out of the reticent special counsel.
In another hearing, featuring former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Nadler moved to allow staff attorneys to pose questions. Democratic counsel Barry Berke got newsy and damning admissions out of Lewandowski, but his round was relegated to the very end of the hours-long hearing—after most of the public had tuned out, and after Lewandowski had successfully turned the proceedings into a circus.
For the impeachment hearings, attorneys from the Democratic and GOP sides will get significant chunks of time—as much as 45 minutes—to question witnesses. Democratic aides said their attorney, Daniel Goldman, is likely to strike at the core of their case against Trump within the first hour, when viewership will be at its peak.
Lawmakers have supported that plan. Himes, for example, said he’s supported counsel questioning from the start. “That is much less disjointed, I think it’s much less unpredictable,” he said. “It minimizes the amount of showboating, so I’m really happy that’s the route we’re going to go.”
The committee holding the hearings—House Intelligence—may also by design limit the showboating Himes referenced. With 13 Democrats and nine Republicans, it’s among the smallest panels in the House, and with each member getting five minutes, the attorneys’ questioning will set the tone for the proceedings.
“The hearings,” said a Democratic aide, “are structured in a way to avoid what happened in the Mueller and Lewandowski hearings.”
For Democrats, getting on the same page when it comes to managing expectations may be a taller task. It was a struggle in the lead-up to Mueller, when some in the party said his mere appearance was a win while others argued his testimony would be revelatory to people who hadn’t paid attention to the special counsel’s investigation.
Inklings of a similar division are visible now. Some lawmakers have proved eager to embrace the impeachment hype. In fact, said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), “I don’t think you can overhype it.”
“This is the most serious assault on the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the president’s respect for his oath of office,” said Cohen, a member of the Judiciary Committee. “These are actual impeachment hearings, for one thing, and it’s a certain gravitas that rises to.”
Cohen, like other lawmakers, noted that Mueller had been a somewhat unknown quantity before appearing on Capitol Hill to break a nearly two-year silence, while the witnesses Democrats are now calling have already testified extensively behind closed doors.
“The witnesses won’t be Mr. Mueller, who was a little bit dry and a little bit beyond his prime,” he said. “It will be people who are in their prime, who are patriots who have come forth with clear evidence that the president has abused his power.”
Others, though, have been careful to frame the first batch of hearings simply as steps in a methodical impeachment process. “It’s an important hearing,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), another Judiciary member. “It’s one of several that’s going to happen.”
“It’s a chance for the American people to see witnesses under oath, talk about what they know about the president’s abuse of power, and the American people can make up their minds,” said Lieu.
Despite the lingering burn from the Mueller hype, others in the caucus warn that seeking to manage expectations from a historic slate of hearings is not worth the time.
“At this point, why bother?” asked a Democratic aide. “It’s history. It’s truth. Life is too short and the times are too serious to ‘manage expectations.’”