Democrats might be fooling themselves in believing that Mueller’s live testimony will shift public opinion. First, though it is true that few members of the public have read the report’s 400-plus pages, there has been no shortage of media coverage of its most important findings; all that Mueller’s appearance will add is another day of video clips on top of the countless hours that already exist.
Second, Mueller’s in-person testimony is unlikely to be any more evocative than his lawyerly, tepid, miss-the-forest-for-the-trees written report. The report’s plodding incident-by-incident deconstruction of the events of 2016 obscures the core narrative of its findings: The Trump campaign actively sought help from Russia, Russia provided it and the Trump campaign made extensive use of it. Mueller’s report instead chased the question of whether there was some agreement between the Trump campaign and Russia concerning these matters — even though that is not the standard under federal election law, which does “not require agreement or formal collaboration to establish coordination.”
Thus, though Clinton-era special counsel Ken Starr wrote a report that hyped salacious details of a presidential sex scandal to create a constitutional moment, Mueller wrote one that turned pervasive evidence of coordination between a presidential campaign and a Russian influence operation into a dry treatise on federal conspiracy law. It seems unlikely that Mueller — having failed to deliver in his report — will do differently in a setting where he is less comfortable and might feel less empowered to do so.
Instead of focusing the hearings on rehashing what is in Mueller’s report, Democrats should use the hearings to justify continued investigations beyond the report. Even if Mueller gives good testimony, Wednesday should not be the finale of the Trump-Russia inquiry, with so many questions left unanswered. And since the odds are high that Mueller will not offer breakthrough testimony, it is especially critical that Democrats use the hearings not to celebrate Mueller’s report but to dramatize its two major gaps.
Second, Mueller rigorously adhered to his scope of his investigation and therefore left much of Trump’s misconduct unexamined. Unlike Starr, who pirated an investigation into an Arkansas land deal into an impeachment case over presidential sexual misconduct, Mueller took the limitations on the scope of his investigation seriously. He handed off the criminal case of Trump’s hush money payment to avoid an October 2016 disclosure of his alleged sexual relations with Stormy Daniels to prosecutors in New York; recent reports suggest that this investigation has mysteriously ended prematurely. Nor did Mueller examine how Russians — and other foreigners — have been putting cash into the Trump family’s pockets since he took office, in violation of the Constitution’s “emoluments clause.” He didn’t consider how or why Trump revealed national security secrets to the Russians in the Oval Office or overrode intelligence community concerns to grant his son-in-law a security clearance.
Thus, the Democrats’ first objective must be to reverse the dynamic where “Mueller Report” and “full investigation into Trump’s wrongdoing” are synonymous in the public mind and make clear that there are considerable areas of investigation that remain unexplored.
During the past few weeks, theater groups, movie stars and concerned citizens have conducted dramatic readings of the Mueller report. Having Mueller himself do the same will not be transformative. Democrats should use “Mueller day” not to restate what Mueller found but to make a case for why they need to explore what Mueller missed, bungled or overlooked.