John Dean took the place of Robert Mueller in an anticlimactic House Judiciary Committee hearing.Andrew Harnik / AP

A few days before the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing on the Mueller report, the panel’s top Republican, Representative Doug Collins, wrote to his Democratic counterpart, Chairman Jerry Nadler, with a helpful reminder: Outside of a formal impeachment inquiry, it is against House rules for a lawmaker to accuse the president of a crime, to call him a liar, or even to ridicule him at all.

The point of Collins’s letter was partly to needle Nadler, who struck out on securing testimony from his star witness—former Special Counsel Robert Mueller—and had to settle instead for inviting John Dean, a star witness of a past presidential scandal who now makes his living as a cable-news pundit. But Collins also wanted to warn Democrats against turning today’s hearing into impeachment by another name.

“This appears to be part of a strategy,” Collins wrote, “to turn the committee’s oversight hearings into a mock-impeachment inquiry rather than a legitimate exercise in congressional oversight.” The Georgia Republican was serving notice: If Democrats want to take down President Donald Trump, they’re going to have to go ahead and impeach him—a step that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made abundantly clear she does not want to take.

In the end, Collins needn’t have worried. If today’s hearing was a first step toward impeachment, it was a most tentative tiptoe. It was less a prelude to a constitutional confrontation than a law-school seminar, and an opportunity for Democrats to get a panel of expert witnesses to say what Mueller would not: that Trump’s conduct as described in the special counsel’s 448-page opus constituted obstruction of justice, and amounted to a crime. Joining Dean were two former federal prosecutors, Joyce White Vance and Barbara McQuade, and a legal scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, John Malcolm.

Though several Democrats on the Judiciary Committee have called for beginning impeachment proceedings against Trump, it was Republican lawmakers who more frequently brought up the “I” word. “You are functionally here as a prop because they can’t impeach President Trump,” Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, one of the president’s staunchest allies, told Dean.

He wasn’t altogether wrong. Pelosi’s resistance to impeachment and Nadler’s struggle to compel testimony from Mueller or his key witnesses have left the committee with few options for conducting meaningful follow-up work on the special counsel’s report. Republicans decried today’s hearing as a waste of time. “I could catch your testimony on TV,” Collins joked to Dean, who has made his views about Trump widely known as a CNN contributor.

The first reference to impeachment from a Democratic lawmaker didn’t come until 90 minutes into the hearing, when Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee asked the witnesses whether Congress would face the same standard in impeaching a president as federal prosecutors would in trying a defendant for a crime. The answer, as other legal experts have said previously, is that Congress can largely determine its own standards for deciding whether a president has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Cohen has backed impeachment for more than a year. “I think we should definitely be moving more rapidly,” he told me before the hearing.

Still, he and other Democrats defended the hearing as a necessary predicate for further oversight and, possibly, impeachment. “We’re just really trying to set the stage, because so far we’ve been stonewalled by this administration,” the panel’s vice chairwoman, Representative Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania, told me in a phone interview before the hearing.

The most charitable justification for the hearing came from Dean himself, who said it served the important function of “public education” for Americans who likely glossed over the Mueller report, if they engaged with it at all. “This report has not been widely read by the public. It has not even been widely read in the Congress,” he said, drawing knowing laughter from the hearing room.

For Democrats, the best news of the day came not while Dean was testifying but hours earlier, when Nadler announced that he had secured an agreement with the Justice Department to obtain “important files” from Mueller’s investigation, fulfilling at least part of his request for the underlying evidence that the special counsel used to formulate his conclusions. As part of the deal, Nadler said he would put on hold future action to enforce a contempt citation against Attorney General William Barr for withholding the unredacted report.

That cache of files could prove useful for the increasing number of House Democrats who are looking to build an impeachment case against Trump—more useful, certainly, than today’s Judiciary Committee hearing.

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