The steady drumbeat among House Democrats for impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump has gone silent. And Robert Mueller is to blame.
The last lawmaker to publicly embrace an impeachment inquiry came forward on June 28, just three days after it was announced that the special counsel would deliver hotly-anticipated testimony and ending a weeks-long trickle that put a third of all House Democrats in favor of the effort.
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In interviews, the most prominent House advocates for impeachment proceedings acknowledged that the push had slowed to a standstill. But they say they’re optimistic that Mueller’s appearance — no matter how understated or scripted — could shake loose dozens of their colleagues and bring the House closer to a formal impeachment inquiry.
“I think they’re waiting for Mueller,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.).
Though Mueller’s testimony next Wednesday before the Judiciary and Intelligence committees may move more Democrats into the impeachment camp, some doubt has begun to surface among impeachment advocates that he’ll provide the dramatic testimony necessary to fuel a tidal wave of support or convince Speaker Nancy Pelosi to drop her long-held opposition to impeachment.
“I think it’s likely to be little more than a book on tape, where he simply recites portions of the report that he wrote and refuses to go beyond the four corners of that report,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who supports launching an impeachment inquiry.
Huffman emphasized that if Mueller sticks to the limited recitation of publicly-known facts from his report, lawmakers will be faced with the same tough decision on impeachment they faced before.
“So we’re still, at the end of this, essentially where we are now,” Huffman said. “We have to decide what to do with all of this really incriminating information.”
How the actual hearing will unfold remains unclear.
Mueller has agreed to testify for roughly four hours total, split between the Judiciary and Intelligence committees. While the Intelligence panel is small enough that every member will likely be able to ask questions, the much larger Judiciary Committee presents its own issues.
For instance, Democrats must decide whether every member of the panel will get to question Mueller and for how long. Some lawmakers have suggested the Judiciary Committee could deviate from its traditional five minutes apiece to allow all 41 lawmakers a chance to speak — but others prefer to stick to five minutes each, even if more junior members get shut out.
The panel will also have to determine how to handle follow-ups if Mueller declines to provide a complete answer or dodges a question. And Democrats may also have to deal with difficult Republicans, who could deploy procedural votes to try to adjourn the hearing or spend time trying to ask their own follow-ups that they demand Mueller answer.
It’s unclear whether the committee will be able to stop or extend the two-hour clock for any unexpected delays, or whether potentially lengthy opening statements will count.
“The timing of it is a bit of a straitjacket so we’re going to have to squeeze a lot into a very short period of time,” Raskin said.
Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), who is likely to get two chances to question Mueller as a member of both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, added that Mueller’s testimony is “just one more piece of the puzzle,” and that Democrats need to continue pursuing testimony from other key witnesses.
Democrats are also bracing for the real possibility that Attorney General William Barr could blow up the entire event.
Barr has already signaled that he intends to block congressional efforts to force Mueller’s deputies to testify, and he also said the Justice Department would support Mueller if the former special counsel decided to skip the hearings altogether.
For now, the chairmen of the Intelligence and Judiciary panels — Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) — say the hearing is on track.
A serious effort by Barr to block or discourage Mueller and his deputies from testifying could supercharge impeachment efforts, some lawmakers say, especially as Democrats become more frustrated with the Trump administration’s efforts to stonewall their myriad inquiries.
“I think that that would have a catalyzing impact,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the Judiciary Committee. “The stonewalling right now is already unprecedented. The GOP is in full cover-up mode. And our caucus is already up in arms about it but it would be an explosive situation politically if they kept Mueller from coming.”
Another open question about Mueller’s testimony is whether the White House will seek to prevent Mueller from answering certain questions — in particular, lawmakers’ inquiries about his interactions with Barr and his reported disagreements with Barr’s rollout of the special counsel’s report.
Barr openly criticized Mueller for not making a formal decision on whether to recommend that Trump be charged with obstruction of justice; he also questioned the legal theories Mueller used to reach his conclusions. Mueller has yet to respond to those specific criticisms.
In May, the president asserted executive privilege over the entirety of the Mueller report and its underlying documents, leaving open the possibility that the White House could demand a presence at Mueller’s hearing in order to lodge objections to lawmakers’ questions.
Democrats have refused to say whether they are open to such an arrangement, although rank-and-file lawmakers are optimistic that the White House will take a hands-off approach, with the knowledge that such an overbearing presence could backfire.
“It’s another expression of the cover-up that Barr’s been running,” Nadler said, when asked about reports that the Justice Department could block Mueller’s deputies from appearing.
“Earlier, when [Barr] said it’s completely up to Bob Mueller whether he testifies, he was counting on Bob Mueller not wanting to testify and not being compelled to,” said Schiff. “But now I think his real motivation is exposed. He’s nothing if not transparent, and he is transparently the president’s agent.”
Heather Caygle contributed to this report.