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WASHINGTON — House Democrats have scored an extra hour of what may be the most precious commodity in Donald Trump’s Washington: Robert Mueller’s face on TV.
While those bonus 60 minutes might not sound like much, they mark an extended chance to push the former special counsel to actually say something newsworthy at the much-anticipated July 24 event, congressional experts told VICE News. Democrats will need every minute they can get for their last, best shot at using Mueller’s damning findings about obstruction of justice as a weapon against Trump.
“Extending the hearing, even marginally, makes it easier to get Mueller’s major points out there,” said Richard Arenberg, a veteran Senate staffer who spent over three decades on Capitol Hill.
But the extra time won’t solve the haphazard structure of Congressional hearings, in which questions bounce back and forth between members of the two parties in disjointed five-minute intervals. And it comes with additional risk: More time for Republicans, who’ve long tried to downplay or mischaracterize the special counsel’s findings as exoneration of Trump, to tear down Mueller’s credibility and reputation.
“I think it’s clear they’re out to bruise him,” Arenberg said.
More time, more problems
Mueller’s appearance follows weeks of tense negotiations over whether, and how, he would answer questions. Mueller, who’s said his 448-page report “is my testimony,” balked at appearing before Congress in open session for fear of looking political, according to House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler.
Mueller initially agreed to answer only two hours' worth of questions from the House Judiciary Committee, a limitation that would have meant only about half of the panel’s 41 members got a chance to speak.
On Friday, Nadler announced a new format, in which all Judiciary members get to ask questions in a three-hour session. Mueller will then head over to another open hearing with the House Intelligence Committee, set to last roughly two hours.
Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee already had a chance to speak with a senior member of Mueller’s team, David Archey, during a five-hour session last Thursday, a congressional staffer told VICE News.
Negotiations are currently underway between the committee and the Department of Justice for the appearance of additional members of Mueller’s staff in closed session, the staffer said.
While observers called the longer session a net win for Democrats, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee clearly believe it plays to their advantage.
Nadler’s counterpart on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, welcomed the extra runtime, which his members will likely use to try to drive home their own narrative of anti-Trump bias among Mueller’s teammates.
“The new format will allow all Judiciary Republicans to question the special counsel.” Collins said.
“They apparently believe they have an effective counter-argument, or at least one that muddies the water, and that by pushing it out there, they can make Mueller look either less competent or less fair,” Arenberg said.
And while extending the time of the committee may give Democrats more opportunities to create made-for-cable-TV moments with Mueller, they’d be better served by appointing a single dedicated staff attorney to ask all their questions, said former Watergate prosecutor Nick Akerman.
Giving each congressperson a chance to speak creates a disjointed format that could easily get blown off course, Akerman said.
“They’ve got to present Mueller’s facts to the public in a coherent way so that the public understands that the president was involved in criminality. With an extra hour, it’s easier to do that,” Akerman said. “But they’ve got to get their act together, or it’s just going to be a big nothing.”
Cover: House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., left, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., pause before taking questions from reporters after passage of a resolution to take legal action against President Donald Trump's administration and potential witnesses, a response to those who defy subpoenas in Congress' Russia probe and other investigations, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 11, 2019.