House Democrats on Monday announced a long-awaited series of hearings on the Mueller report that they hope will drive home President Donald Trump’s misdeeds to a far larger share of the American public.
Their star witness, however, will not be Robert Mueller, the recently departed special counsel and principal author of the 448-page document at the center of the proceedings. Nor will it be Attorney General William Barr, who skipped out on a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month and earned a contempt citation from the panel for withholding Mueller’s unredacted findings. Nor will it be former White House Counsel Don McGahn, who provided Mueller with some of the most damaging—and possibly incriminating—details on Trump’s actions.
In fact, the announcement from Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler did not list a single person mentioned in the Mueller report as a potential witness. Instead, Nadler plans to invite a figure from scandals past: John Dean, the White House counsel to former President Richard Nixon who famously called the Watergate affair “a cancer” growing close to the presidency and later testified against Nixon to Congress. The hearings will also feature “former U.S. attorneys and legal experts,” the committee said.
As congressional-hearing notices go, Monday’s announcement read like the lineup for a much-hyped music festival that tried desperately to book Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, or Ariana Grande and wound up with Hootie & the Blowfish at the top of the bill instead.
Daniel Schwarz, a spokesman for Nadler, said the Judiciary Committee had not given up on Mueller, whom lawmakers have wanted to question from the moment Barr delivered the first summary of the former special counsel’s report to Congress in March. But it is the strongest signal yet that Democrats are prepared to move on without him.
Mueller, in his first and only public statement since becoming special counsel in 2017, last week made clear his reluctance to appear in the circuslike atmosphere of a congressional hearing. “The report is my testimony,” he said, warning lawmakers that he would not “go beyond our report” in any appearance before Congress—which is exactly what members of both parties would likely spend hours of questioning trying to get him to do.
Democrats have also struck out with other high-profile potential witnesses, but for different reasons. The Trump White House has settled on a strategy of all-out war against the investigative powers of the new House majority, choosing to fight subpoenas in court rather than submit current and former officials to the glare of testimony. McGahn, for example, abided by instructions from the White House not to appear before Nadler’s committee, ignoring a congressional subpoena. And Barr formally requested that Trump invoke executive privilege over the complete Mueller report and its underlying documents.
“No one is above the law,” Nadler said in a statement accompanying Monday’s announcement. “While the White House continues to cover up and stonewall, and to prevent the American people from knowing the truth, we will continue to move forward with our investigation. These hearings will allow us to examine the findings laid out in Mueller’s report so that we can work to protect the rule of law and protect future elections through consideration of legislative and other remedies.”
The “other remedies” is a none-too-subtle reference to impeachment, a word Nadler did not mention Monday. It’s an olive branch to the growing chorus of rank-and-file Democrats—along with a lone Republican—who want the party to act more decisively against Trump. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been unmoved by the demands, but she, like Nadler, has kept the option in reserve. On Sunday, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, the third-ranking Democrat, said on CNN’s State of the Union that impeachment proceedings were inevitable.
These initial hearings, then, could be a precursor to impeachment—a way for, as Clyburn put it, Democrats to “educate the public” on the weighty constitutional remedy that has been put to use rarely in the nation’s history. Incidentally, those are also the words Nadler used to describe the road he would take on impeachment—if it came to it—when I interviewed him for a profile last fall. “Certainly if we were to go down that route, part of it would be to educate the American people—and members of Congress are part of the American people—as to what in our view, and what in scholars’ view is impeachment, and when you should use it, and when you shouldn’t,” Nadler told me at the time. “That would be the first thing I would hope we would do before we started.”
This approach is also consistent with Pelosi’s go-slow strategy on impeachment. The longer Democrats take to ramp up their confrontation with Trump, the closer it will get to 2020, and the more impeachment becomes a slim possibility as the opportunity to simply vote the president out of office draws closer. The calendar does not preclude impeachment, but it buys more time for the public clamor to grow, minimizing the political backlash Democrats fear.
A key to this route, however, was high-profile hearings that would capture the public’s attention. Democrats didn’t want to have to make the case for impeachment themselves—they wanted Mueller to do it for them. Without his participation, they’ve decided, the show must go on. But will America watch?