Former special counsel Robert Mueller has agreed to appear before Congress in back-to-back hearings before the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee. These will not be closed-door hearings. They will be live, in front of cameras, and likely one of the most watched events in Congress for decades.
The agreement to appear came after both committees issued subpoenas for Mueller’s testimony. Unlike members of White House or campaign staff who have followed Donald Trump’s order to ignore congressional subpoenas, Mueller simply accepted the subpoenas and agreed to appear as requested.
In his final appearance behind a lectern at the Department of Justice, Mueller insisted that the report was his “testimony,” expressed a desire to not be made the focus of public attention, and insisted that, if called to appear, he would have nothing to say beyond the information already found in his report. However, at the same event, Mueller made it clear that the way that his report had been put forward by Attorney General William Barr was a profound distortion of its actual contents.
Mueller emphasized again that the two principle findings of the report were not that there was “no collusion” but that there was only a lack of evidence necessary to charge a broad criminal conspiracy, and that the report did find repeated acts of obstruction—including acts that may have contributed to the inability to solidify that conspiracy charge. Mueller’s statement was sufficiently riveting that it made discussion of an impeachment inquiry much more serious and widespread. It also helped raise awareness of just how damaging the contents of the report actually are, and how important it is that the real results of the report be heard by the American people, rather than the distorted results spread by Barr and Trump.
And, despite what Mueller said at that final DOJ appearance, he does have things to speak to other than the contents of the report. Representatives are sure to ask him specific questions about his interactions with Barr, about both how Barr produced his three-page note to Congress, and how Barr determined which sections of the report needed to be redacted.
The story of how Barr treated the report once it arrived on his desk is critical. It’s the continuance of the cover-up that the report itself details. Questions about those circumstances need to be asked and answered at the hearing.
Mueller’s appearance is likely to be widely watched and broadly reported. It’s going to be an extraordinary event and absolutely critical. It could catapult the movement for an impeachment inquiry into high gear. It could transform national sentiment. It could shape the whole way the nation moves toward the 2020 election.
Or … not. The biggest issue for the hearings is likely to be that they are congressional hearings. They’ll be constrained by all the obstacles of limited time for each questioner, frequent interruptions over points of order, and a pace that doesn’t always make for compelling television. And since half the time in these hearings will belong to Republican representatives, anyone tuning in can expect to get a full dose of congressmen who declare that the whole event is nonsense, congressmen who paint Mueller as part of a deep-state conspiracy, congressmen who demand to know why Mueller didn’t investigate Hillary Clinton, and congressmen who read excerpts from Peter Strzok and Lisa Page’s mash-texts. They may not be able to end the hearing completely, but they will do everything possible to turn it into a farce—while complaining that it’s a farce.
If Democrats want to make the most of the Mueller hearings, it will mean coordination between representatives to avoid covering unproductive ground repeatedly, careful attention to answers to draw focus to critical issues, and the selflessness not to spend precious moments of air time simply basking in the camera’s attention. Which is a big ask.
Both hearings will be held on July 17. So far, Trump has restricted himself to a single tweet of “presidential harassment!” in responding to the news. That won’t last. Republicans will do everything they can over the next month to diminish the credibility of Mueller, diminish the importance of the report, and create distractions to minimize the impact of the hearings.
Don’t be surprised if the morning news of a potential new summit with North Korea leads to results … around July 17. Or if the ongoing tension with Iran calls for a few things to explode … around July 17. Or if Trump decides that mid-July would be a good time to shut down, burn down, board up, wall up, or simply scream about something other than the hearings.
But people are going to be watching. In the U.S., and in Moscow.