WASHINGTON — Democrats hoped this week’s “Lessons from the Mueller report” hearings would provide the kind of riveting, must-see TV that would finally get the public to focus on the report’s damning assertions about President Trump.
Instead, their first installment was eclipsed by a helicopter crash in New York City.
“The president’s guilty,” said Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, summing up the event afterwards. “It’s just, how many people saw it, I don’t know.”
The relative silence that surrounded Monday’s hearing symbolized a painful reality for House Democrats: The party is struggling to keep momentum from the Mueller investigation alive, in the face of unprecedented stonewalling from the White House over witnesses and documents and a simmering feud with party leadership over whether to impeach Trump.
Democrats tried to reclaim the momentum Tuesday, granting the House Judiciary Committee the power to go to court to enforce subpoenas against Attorney General William Barr and former White House Counsel Don McGahn. But it’s unclear if those powers will render any breakthroughs in the near term future, and Trump appears happy to let things drag on in the courts.
So Democrats are poised to start Wednesday’s hearings much with the same dim prospects on display Monday: Relying on expert witnesses with no actual connections to the case and no possibility of uncovering new information.
“They’ve got to bring this report to life and run these hearings like a trial”
“These hearings will be totally meaningless unless they take the next step and bring in the key witnesses,” said Nick Akerman, a former member of the Watergate prosecution team. “They’ve got to bring this report to life and run these hearings like a trial.”
Ctrl F “key witness”
Those “key witnesses” don’t appear forthcoming, however.
Trump’s former top White House Counsel Don McGahn, whose testimony and notes provided the backbone of the Mueller report’s passages on obstruction of justice, remains crucially out of the mix.
McGahn and other important witnesses — including his former top aide Annie Donaldson, former White House communications advisor Hope Hicks, and others — have spurned Congressional subpoenas on direct orders from Trump’s White House, which Democrats have so far proved powerless to override.
Mueller has also refused to appear, reportedly for fear of looking political — a stance which, much like impeachment proceedings, has prompted an internal debate among Democrats about how to move forward.
Lacking cooperation from Mueller or his witnesses, Democrats called on John Dean, the one-time top White House lawyer who turned against former President Richard Nixon a half-century ago. Dean repeatedly drew disturbing parallels between Trump and Nixon, only to be mercilessly mocked by Republicans for his general irrelevance to the current situation.
“This committee is now hearing from the 70s, and they want their star witness back”
“This committee is now hearing from the 70s, and they want their star witness back,” said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.
Partisan sniping aside, Republicans had a point, said Paul Rosenzweig, a former member of Ken Starr’s investigation into Bill Clinton. Democrats aren’t going to win any breakthroughs by calling in unrelated witnesses and talking heads, he said.
“John Dean is not going to persuade people,” Rosenzweig said.
Monday's dud raises tough questions for Democrats about where to go next and how to keep what they've called a “constitutional crisis” front and center without either the main players or a serious threat of impeachment.
Trump’s blanket defiance of Congressional subpoenas has forced Congress to chip off individual flakes of information from his administration, dulling the impact of negative information by drawing out the release over a prolonged period that could stretch beyond Trump’s reelection next year.
Even relatively speedy decisions at the district court level to enforce Congressional subpoenas would still likely languish for months on appeal.
“This is a dark time. This Congress is being tested — in this case, not by a foreign adversary, but by our own president,” House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, Democrat from Massachusetts, told the Washington Post Tuesday. Trump’s policy of refusing to comply with Congressional subpoenas makes “Richard Nixon look like an Eagle Scout.”
The stand-off is raising a clamor among some House Democrats to launch impeachment proceedings. Although doomed to fail in the Republican-controlled Senate, an impeachment investigation would hand Democrats an iron-clad legal argument to procure witnesses and documents more quickly.
“Impeachment hearings would give Democrats a constitutional basis for these hearings which means they could get anything they want — grand jury materials, anything,” Akerman said.
But even if the Democrats eventually get the star witnesses they desire, they may have already lost their window to make enough Americans care. Polls show that voters’ opinions of the key question of obstruction of justice haven’t moved much in months. Four-fifths of registered Democrats continue to say they think Trump obstructed justice, just as before the report was released. A similar ratio of Republicans, likewise, continue to think that he didn’t.
“The Democrats have been trying to fight back by changing the narrative,” said Stu Rothenberg, senior editor at Inside Elections. “But I believe public opinion has hardened on this issue, and it’s going to be very difficult to change.”
Cover: Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., talks with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., after a meeting in the Capitol about funding for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. Comedian and advocate Jon Stewart and 9/11 responders attended the meeting. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)