Never meet your idols, the show biz saying goes — they’re bound to disappoint you.
Democrats are about to test that adage. They’ve gotten their hopes up for their big encounter with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who’s set to break his cryptic silence in a forced public appearance on July 17 after receiving two Congressional subpoenas on Tuesday.
By compelling Mueller’s testimony, Democrats are taking their best and probably last shot at reviving the investigation that dominated the first two years of Trump’s presidency, but which has faded from public view in the face of an unprecedented White House blockade and infighting among Democrats over how to proceed.
But if his lengthy and damning report couldn’t rally national support for impeachment proceedings, Mueller alone isn’t likely to seal Trump’s fate either, political analysts said.
“It is political theater, and will be, I expect, a flop,” said Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor who once worked with Mueller’s former top deputy, Andrew Weissmann, in the Eastern District of New York. “I think this Mueller appearance is a great deal of nothing.”
Mueller has explicitly promised not to say anything beyond what’s in his 448-page report on Trump’s ties to Russia and potential obstruction of justice.
Democrats think that’s just fine because his original findings never really registered with the broader public.
His conclusions were buried in a dense, book-length write-up, and successfully spun as good news for the White House by President Trump and Attorney General Barr, they argue. A full day of Mueller TV will hit much harder than his written report, and allow them to finally set the record straight.
“I think it will have a profound impact,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat from New York, told journalists in the Capitol building on Wednesday.
“Attorney General Barr led a campaign of misinformation to deceive the American people about what’s in the report,” he said. “I think it’s very important that the American people hear from Mr. Mueller about what he did find.”
Mueller’s only public remarks about his investigation so far do provide some evidence to support Nadler’s optimism. On his last day on the job in mid-May, Mueller delivered a brief speech that, despite adding no new facts, prompted several more House Democrats to begin calling for impeachment.
At least 80 Democrats now favor impeaching Trump, including four in competitive battleground districts seen as necessary for holding a Democratic House majority in the 2020 election. That number has been ticking gradually upwards since Mueller’s initial, brief public remarks.
“It's blatant corruption and obstruction of justice, and this will force people to focus on that conduct”
Legal analysts who’ve studied Mueller’s report argue it’s much worse than most people realize, including 1,000-plus former prosecutors who’ve signed an open letter stating that if Trump weren’t protected by presidential immunity, he’d easily have been charged with obstruction of justice.
“Trump's conduct as described in the report is outrageous,” said Mimi Rocah, a former prosecutor with the Southern District of New York. “It's blatant corruption and obstruction of justice, and this will force people to focus on that conduct.”
But most minds have already been made up about the whole affair, meaning Mueller will have to deliver one barn-burner of a performance to significantly change the Russia investigation narrative, said Stu Rothenberg, veteran political analyst and senior editor at Inside Elections.
“Opinion has hardened,” Rothenberg said. “A bombshell moment would be dramatic and could change how people at the margins see things. But if he doesn’t go beyond his report, I doubt his testimony would change many minds.”
“Mueller will not save us,” Brian Schatz, Democratic Senator from Hawaii, tweeted Tuesday night.
There remains at least an outside chance, however, that Mueller might say something new. His former boss, Attorney General Barr, has argued publicly that Mueller was wrong to conclude that DOJ policy forbid him from reaching a conclusion about whether Trump committed a crime.
“It’s possible that Mueller could take this statement as an authorization to be more candid,” said Jens David Ohlin, vice dean of Cornell Law School. But he probably won’t, Ohlin said.
“Will he be the political savior that Democrats are hoping for?” Ohlin asked. “I wouldn’t hold my breath.”
Too little, too late
Meanwhile, time is running out for Democrats to launch impeachment hearings before the presidential campaign kicks off and begins to dominate the airwaves. The first Democratic presidential debate is set for Wednesday night in Miami, Florida.
House Speaker, Democrat Nancy Pelosi of California, has steadfastly resisted pressure from her own caucus to greenlight impeachment proceedings, citing lack of broader public support and any hope of prevailing in the Republican-controlled Senate.
That hemming and hawing has killed the momentum Democrats once had around Trump and Russia, argues Richard Arenberg, who spent 30 years as a staffer on Capitol Hill.
“The Congressional minority should have insisted on public hearings two years ago”
A veteran of the Reagan-era Iran-Contra hearings, Arenberg points out that Congress didn’t wait, back then, for the special prosecutor to finish his work investigating the president before launching its own proceedings in earnest.
The same was true in the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, when Senate investigations dominated national television for weeks and helped ensure former President Richard Nixon’s doom.
“The Committee did not wait around for the independent counsel to develop the facts. They were investigated by the committee at the same time,” Arenberg said. “So hearings now are late.”
Mueller’s appearance remains important, he said, to help set the record straight against Trump’s “No-collusion, no-obstruction, witch-hunt mantra.” But that mantra has already had plenty of opportunity to settle in.
“The Congressional minority should have insisted on public hearings two years ago,” Arenberg said.
Cover: Special Counsel Robert Mueller speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington, Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)