It was supposed to be a made-for-TV moment for House Democrats: former Richard Nixon counsel and Watergate icon John Dean testifying before lawmakers in the Judiciary Committee’s first hearing solely devoted to the substance of Robert Mueller’s findings on whether President Trump obstructed the Russia investigation.
After the four-hour hearing wrapped on Monday, though, not all Democrats were reveling in the testimony of Watergate’s star witness. Some were even wondering if anyone had bothered to watch.
“I don’t know if there were any blockbuster events today,” conceded Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), a Judiciary member. “It was kind of like a plotting exercise.”
“It should have been on CNN and MSNBC and Fox,” argued Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) as he walked out of the hearing. “For whatever reason they didn’t choose to do it. CSPAN-3 ran it, and I understand at 3:30 they switched to a helicopter crash [which killed one person in midtown Manhattan on Monday afternoon] in New York.”
Eyeballs matter to Democrats as they attempt to navigate the latest stretch of political terrain following the release of the Mueller Report seven weeks ago. The party knows that the vast majority of the public hasn’t read Mueller’s findings, and there is fear that Attorney General William Barr’s initial summary letter of those findings played a definitive role in shaping public opinion.
Hoping to alter that Barr-authored perception, Democrats called on Dean—not to attest to the special counsel’s work but to place it within the historical parallels of corrupt administrations. It was a dicey choice from the get-go, with the party getting some pushback for leaning on a witness whose expertise was a scandal-filled White House from four decades ago. But for some members, the mere fact of a lengthy hearing during which Democrats dutifully cited pages and paragraphs of the Mueller Report was helpful in cutting through the “fog,” in the words of Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), and to “bring the report to life,” as Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) put it.
And yet, the day also served as an illustration of the bind in which Democrats now find themselves: witnesses who can speak to the substance of the Mueller Report, like former White House counsel Don McGahn and Mueller himself, have either refused to testify or have not yet committed to doing so. Meanwhile, an impeachment inquiry—which would infuse Democrats’ oversight efforts with greater gravitas and urgency—remains a divisive topic within the caucus. And so, they’ve turned elsewhere.
“We’d love to have testimony from Don McGahn, Bob Mueller, Hope Hicks, and the others,” said Johnson. “To the extent we can’t get them today, [testimony from Dean] was decent material that gave the American people some new information that perhaps they didn’t know, given the fact that most Americans have not read the Mueller Report.”
Privately, Democratic aides grumbled on Monday by what they viewed as a missed opportunity.
“I wish cable was covering it,” one aide to a Judiciary Committee member told The Daily Beast.
And even those members who praised the outcome of Monday’s hearing acknowledged there were few, if any, breakthrough moments. Instead, they framed it as an important early step in Democrats’ effort to tell the story of the Mueller Report and hold the president accountable.
Democrats were pleased with Dean’s actual performance. The former White House counsel sat before lawmakers—and gamely sparred with a few on the GOP side—and declared that Mueller had provided a “road map” to further investigation of presidential wrongdoing. Another witness, former U.S. attorney Joyce Vance, said that if he were not president, Trump would have been charged with a crime and that she’d be “willing to personally indict the case... and win on appeal.”
“This is just the beginning,” said Cicilline, who promised more hearings and witnesses, including individuals named in the report.
“We’ll get ‘em,” Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) promised during the hearing.
It’s unclear when those blockbuster hearings might happen. In the meantime, several Democratic aides also pointed to Republicans’ rhetoric in the hearing as evidence of their continued effort to obfuscate the details of the report and to protect Trump. After ranking member Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) dismissed the hearing as a show, GOP members questioned Dean over his role as a cable news pundit—and his role in the Watergate scandal, 45 years ago. “Moments like these show how far up Trump’s ass today’s Republican Party is,” one Democratic aide said.
“It is just good to hear real life truth being spoken,” Raskin told The Daily Beast. “I think there’s this subtext in the discussion of the Mueller Report that obstruction of justice is some kind of technical event, and I think we destroyed that premise.”