House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gleefully issued her own statement. “The Mueller Report revealed that the Russians waged a ‘sweeping and systematic’ attack on our elections, and America’s top intelligence and law enforcement officials have warned that the Russians will attack our elections again,” she said. “Yet, sadly the President calls it a hoax, and suggests that he would welcome Russian interference again. Members of Congress must honor our oath and our patriotic duty to follow the facts, so we can protect our democracy.”
This may be the most watched congressional testimony in history. President Trump and his legal team have struggled mightily, even raising entirely spurious claims of “absolute immunity,” to prevent live testimony of any witness who might be able to elucidate the findings in the Mueller report, which the vast number of Americans have not read and do not fully comprehend. “Mueller will not feel the same gravitational pull from the White House, and even if they make efforts to keep him from testifying, it is unlikely that they will succeed, since he is a private citizen Bob Mueller, not government employee Bob Mueller,” explains former prosecutor Joyce White Vance.
By contrast, former White House counsel Donald McGahn has chosen not to testify in the face of White House objections and now faces a possible civil action by the House to force his appearance. That subpoena may not be fully litigated for weeks (at the very least).
The importance of Mueller’s testimony cannot be overstated. “This should have happened in April or May, but it’s important that it’s happening now,” former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller tells me. “Even if all he does is repeat the findings in the report, it’s important that the American people hear directly from him about the serious evidence that the president violated the law.”
While the appearance of Mueller technically would not affect other subpoenas, Mueller’s public discussion of what witnesses told him would be one more instance in which legitimate executive privilege would be waived.
The Mueller testimony has enormous ramifications for at least four reasons.
First, this is possibly the only way to dispel the notion that Mueller found “no collusion, no obstruction.” In fact, he didn’t look for “collusion,” which is not a crime, but came up short finding a criminal conspiracy. Nevertheless, he found that the president and his campaign welcomed Russian interference and thought it would help Trump win. Hearing that directly from Mueller will be a powerful and complete contradiction of Trump’s and Attorney General William P. Barr’s public statements. As to obstruction, listen to Mueller lay out the conduct for which he found elements of obstruction of justice. Finally, Mueller can explain that because of an Office of Legal Counsel memo, he didn’t opine on obstruction because that is Congress’s job in the context of impeachment. Certainly, what he says likely won’t go beyond the report, but for most of the country this will be the first time they really will discover what he found.
Second, while truth-telling is a benefit unto itself, Mueller’s testimony has the potential to move public sentiment. No matter what he says, he will not sway hardcore Trump supporters who believe nothing negative about their cult leader. However, it is not hard to imagine him shifting public opinion in the way that the Watergate hearings shifted public sentiment in favor of impeachment. That in turn would make it more uncomfortable for Republicans to defend him and more politically feasible for Democrats in the House to act — and then excoriate the Senate for not fulfilling its constitutional duty to remove him.
Third, Mueller’s testimony may both alleviate and increase pressure on Pelosi to begin impeachment hearings. On one hand, she buys a bit of time to allow Mueller to testify, for public reaction to take it in and perhaps for other witnesses to step forward. However, if Mueller is truly convincing (especially if there is perceptible movement in public approval of impeachment), it will be hard for her to deny that Mueller found substantial evidence of obstruction, for which the available remedy is impeachment.
Fourth, while Mueller is unlikely to discuss his conversations with Barr, committee members and/or counsel can read portions of Barr’s original summary, testimony and news conference to Mueller and then ask if the statements are true. True or false — you left it to Mr. Barr to decide on obstruction? True or false — President Trump did not “completely cooperate” insofar as he refused to be interviewed and tried to sway the testimony of others? Barr is unlikely to come off as a straight shooter after Mueller lays out the facts discussed in the report, facts that contradict Barr’s spin. (I remain in favor of impeachment proceedings against Barr both for attempts to mislead the public and Congress and for attempts to raise frivolous objections.)
As former prosecutor Mimi Rocah told me, “This is very important in getting the American public to understand how corrupt and egregious Trump’s conduct was in trying to stop the Russia investigation. At a minimum, people will be educated about the public facts that are in the report — facts that paint a picture of blatant obstruction of justice.” She continued, “Ideally, we will also learn more about the campaign’s interactions with Russia and also Bill Barr’s interactions with Mueller and why the investigation ended when it did.” She cautions, “While I think people need to temper their expectations, because Mueller isn’t going to talk much about things not already public, the impact of his short public statement is a sign of how impactful a full day of testimony could be.”
Indeed, Americans are about to learn a whole bunch about Trump’s conduct — which is precisely why it could be so devastating for him.