Finally, Congress Will Hear from the Special Counsel Himself on What Trump Knew and When He Knew It
Much as I wish that Robert S. Mueller III would just rear back at the congressional hearing he reluctantly will attend on Wednesday and let loose with a volley of outrage, I fear we’re in for such careful testimony that any questions that stray near useful opinion will simply be ignored.
Mueller is an expert, if Delphic, witness who is adept at not answering questions while staying just inside the line of what is expected of him.
To make this hugely anticipated hearing before two congressional committees useful what becomes critical is whether Democrats figure out how to ask the right questions.
As a result, to make this hugely anticipated hearing before two congressional committees useful what becomes critical is whether Democrats figure out how to ask the right questions—particularly under a negotiated time limit for each of two committees he will meet. We are totally reliant on whether they are clever enough in presenting a question as to draw an actual practical answer.
And that’s going to raise the issues of turning the Mueller testimony into a charade hearing for partisan bickering—my personal worst nightmare here. Rather than focus on the fact that we have someone in the White House who is avoiding indictment, never mind impeachment, for the sole reason that he is president, the fear is that we will be forced to focus on Mueller’s discomfort at answering questions and on Republican ridicule for political theater.
So, crafting questions is the new special skill of the day. Fortunately, the Judiciary Committee is filled with former prosecutors, who should be able to suborn their political personalities long enough to fulfill the needed supporting role of careful questioning to match careful answers.
Behind Closed Doors
The bulk of questions asked by the House Intelligence Committee will be behind closed doors and will focus on the counterintelligence aspects of the investigation that were not discussed in the Mueller Report.
Asking about how the report supports an indictment for anyone who is not president, for example, would allow Mueller to quote from the report. Congress might ask about statements in the report that say several instances of possible obstruction that are supported by “substantial evidence.” What is meant by that term? Asking him for the evidence in the report that would argue against indictment should draw attention only to the summary statement that his investigation could not clear Donald Trump.
Asking directly about whether Mueller agreed with Attorney General William Barr’s reading of the Mueller Report as a virtual exoneration of the president means asking about the contents of the letter Mueller sent to Barr, the one that Barr found “snitty.”
The Mueller style is to avoid “speculation” or to avoid any conclusion other than is in writing.
The best questions might be based on quotes from the report itself and say “is it true that you found…” just to get into congressional evidence that series of events that amounted to bad Trump deeds.
Mueller should be asked what elements add up to obstruction and why his team stopped short of making direct recommendations to Congress, even if they believed that they could not consider the indictment of a sitting president.
What Won’t He Answer?
It also will be useful to know what questions Mueller will not answer because so many avenues of investigation remain open for other outstanding criminal cases.
On the other hand, Republican supporters of Trump are lying in wait in hopes of trapping Mueller in a would-be attack on the origins of the investigation, which they feel overstepped constitutional authorities about investigating Americans caught up in intelligence matters. They hope to catch Mueller in logic traps about an FBI agent caught sharing anti-Trump emails and texts. But since Mueller removed the agent from his team as soon as he found out, it is unclear what the point would be.
Essentially, Republicans, including Rep. Mike Meadows (R-N.C.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), plan what the rest of us would call a cross-examination, as if Mueller will break down under pressure to having erred in following the investigation based solely on what they see as a flawed, biased and unproved Christopher Steele dossier as the basis of the special counsel investigation.
Presumably, if Mueller follows his pattern of previous testimonies before Congress, he should simply swat those queries, especially as the Justice Department has launched its third investigation of that same material.
Democrat Adam Schiff, who heads the intelligence committee, told an interviewer, “We’re going to be asking questions. He has to go to what’s in the report, but we’re going to be asking questions that are outside the report. The attorney general has made it clear that he feels completely free to discuss matters not in the report. In fact, the attorney general felt free to mischaracterize the report. And there’s no law or prescription against Bob Mueller talking about other avenues about the investigation that they pursued or didn’t pursue or where it led. So, we’re going to have a lot of questions, we’re going to ask him to answer, and we’re going to expect to get answers.”
Schiff added, “I want to, you know, have reasonable expectations about what’s going to come out of this, but it’s enormously important, I think, for the public to hear from the man who did this investigation to bring these facts to life to understand just what it means when the President of the United States is trying to obstruct the justice of the United States, the justice system, as well as just how compromising it is when the president, for example, is pursuing his financial interests in Russia while misleading the American people about it. So, these facts need to be brought forward to the public, and that is the primary purpose of bringing him in.”
Even with its limitations, the hearing seems important.