Few congressional hearings in recent memory will match the anticipation of Wednesday’s, when the notoriously laconic Robert Mueller will take questions for the first and likely last time about his investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election campaign.
Over the course of roughly five hours, members of two congressional committees will grill the former special counsel about his team’s report. Millions are expected to tune in on television. Bars in Washington will open early so those with an uncontrollable hankering for politics, or little else going on, can pregame the action. The president says he may watch some of the matter (though those close to Trump expect him to obsessively monitor the proceedings and subsequent coverage) while members of his party anxiously game out the political ramifications.
“Impeachment will live and die with this hearing,” said a Republican aide to a Judiciary Committee member who will question Mueller. “The impeachment of President Trump in his first term will live and die based on what happens on Wednesday.”
For Democrats, the day marks the culmination of a years-long effort to highlight the president’s conduct before and in office. It’s also, they’ve come to acknowledge, a dicey proposition. Behind closed doors, lawmakers fret that the hearing may not live up to the hype, according to half a dozen Democratic aides who spoke to The Daily Beast.
“We have people out there—people who haven’t been keeping track of things—who are anticipating that Mueller will reveal new information that they haven’t heard before,” one Democratic staffer said. “So, that’s something the [Democrats] have been trying to manage. They’ve been trying to get the word out that they don’t expect Mueller to say anything revolutionary.”
In his only prior public appearance since taking on the special counsel role, Mueller said he would not discuss any matters beyond the purview of his report. He insisted the report spoke for itself—and, on Monday, the Justice Department insisted in a letter to Mueller that his “testimony must remain with the boundaries of your public report.”
Still, some Judiciary Committee Democrats who spoke to The Daily Beast say Mueller’s testimony will stun the public simply because of how Trumpworld has mischaracterized his conclusions.
“The enemy is not all the hype and expectation,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), a Judiciary Committee member. “Our enemy is the thick fog of propaganda and confusion created by Attorney General Barr and by the Trump administration. The question is, whether we will be able to pierce through it.”
“When the Watergate hearings took place, everyone watched more or less the same news on TV,” Raskin added. “My hope is this hearing will allow Mueller to speak for himself without all the deception and diversion.”
For months, Democrats have pushed the idea that just getting the former special counsel to publicly discuss his report would be a win for the party. Two Democratic aides went as far as to say that the party’s push to gain access to Mueller’s underlying documents was always viewed as a stretch among the upper echelons of the party. That’s because it was Mueller they really wanted, those sources said, adding that their strategy was simply to get the American public to watch the hearing. If the public does tune in, those sources said, then Americans will see the extent of the president’s relationship with the Kremlin and his efforts to undermine the Mueller probe, including his failed attempts to have the special counsel fired.
“For people who have read the Mueller report or have followed this issue closely, the hearing will not be surprising,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “For everyone else, it should be mind-blowing.”
Though Mueller has signalled he won’t veer far from his report, Democratic strategists and staffers say some lawmakers are holding out hope that he will go off course—even just once—to talk about whether or not President Trump broke the law.
“I think there’s still some things that we don’t know,” one Democratic aide said. “There’s still the possibility he could underscore something we all missed or didn’t put together.”
Knowing that the public itself is likely anticipating a Mueller bombshell, advisers working for the committees have tried to dampen down expectations that one will be delivered, telling lawmakers over the last several weeks that Mueller is unlikely to engage in questioning that touches on subjects outside the scope of the report. Each Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee has been through one-on-one sessions with committee staff, Lieu told The Daily Beast. The sessions are designed to keep the party on script so that they can spotlight five specific instances of possible obstruction of justice laid out in Mueller’s report.
On Tuesday, Judiciary Democrats are set to stage a mock Mueller hearing behind closed doors to further solidify that game plan. A request for comment as to who was playing the role of Mueller was not returned.
“I think this is an opportunity,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), a Judiciary Committee member, told The Daily Beast, “and we want to do it in a very organized way so that the story, the narrative, of a president who attempted repeatedly to undermine, stop, prevent the investigation from continuing and committed acts of obstruction of justice, that the American people at the end of the hearing have a full understanding of the very serious findings of the special counsel.”
Democratic aides, meanwhile, say they’ve been working with lawyers to study Mueller’s testimony style. He doesn’t speak in long sentences, those aides said, and he rarely expands on his answers. One Democrat put it this way when asked about preparation: “Questioning Mueller is a science. And unless you know your subject, and all the intricacies of how it works, you’re not going to ace the test.”
Acing that test, the theory goes, might spark the public to put more pressure on Democratic lawmakers to open an impeachment inquiry into Trump. The timing, at least, lines up well. Just two days after Mueller’s hearing, House members will return home for the five-week August recess, which usually means lots of constituent meetings and town halls. If members get an earful in their districts, said Cicilline, it “may encourage some people to come back and support the notion of beginning an impeachment inquiry.”
Currently, 90 House Democrats—almost 40 percent of the conference—openly back an impeachment inquiry. It’s widely expected on Capitol Hill that Mueller’s testimony will push a number of lawmakers off the fence and swell the ranks of the pro-impeachment caucus.
If Mueller’s long-awaited testimony is providing Democrats with a critical chance to shine a light on presidential misconduct, Republicans—including Trump himself—are torn over its significance. House Judiciary Republicans are prepping for the hearing, with GOP staffer saying that members have been comparing notes with each other about their questions and focusing intensively on the hearing. But while some in the party view any oxygen given to Mueller’s report as feeding an anti-Trump narrative, some on Team Trump say the hearing could be a golden opportunity for revenge.
“[The Mueller Report was] one of the most dishonest reports ever rendered, and I think the Republicans could take it apart upon examination,” John Dowd, a lawyer who repped Trump for almost a year of the Mueller probe, said in an interview in May. “[Bob Mueller] doesn’t want to go up there. It’s obvious he’s pulled a fast one.” Dowd, who continues to informally advise the president, also said it would be “great to get him up there” so that Republican lawmakers could “take him apart.”
For some GOPers, Wednesday’s goals are two-fold: to raise questions about the Russia probe’s origins and to paint Democrats as hysterics. “Success for Republicans is the Democrats exposing the irrational vitriol with which they want to go after this president,” said the Republican Judiciary aide. “That on full display: This unhinged lust for taking down Donald Trump at any cost.”
One big question mark is how the president himself will react to the hearing. Trump has told associates he thinks Wednesday’s spectacle will be “boring” and “old news,” according to two people who’ve discussed it with him in the last three weeks. On top of that, the president has privately said that he’s heard from “a lot of people” that Mueller will likely perform poorly and perhaps face humiliation by Republicans, per one of the sources.
President Trump’s lawyers, for now, are mostly shrugging—hoping that Mueller will deliver exactly what the Democrats fear: a nothingburger.
“I don’t expect any new revelations. He said his report is his testimony. So I expect his testimony to be the report,” Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal attorneys during the Russia probe, told The Daily Beast.