Democrats hit gas on Mueller probe — without Mueller testimony

Democrats hit gas on Mueller probe — without Mueller testimony
© Getty

Democrats are vowing to press forward with public hearings on special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE’s investigation, calling a Watergate star as their first big witness as they dig into probes of President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE.

The decision to call John Dean represents a move by Democrats to jump-start public hearings, even as testimony from their star witness – Mueller himself – remains out of reach.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerAngelina Jolie spotted in Capitol meeting with senators House panel advances immigration language for reconciliation bill Hillicon Valley —Apple is not a monopoly, judge rules MORE (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday that he is “confident” Mueller will come in soon but offered few details on the ongoing negotiations. Nadler reiterated that the committee will subpoena Mueller “if we have to.”


The Judiciary Committee has also faced an uncooperative White House and Justice Department as it has unsuccessfully sought to call current and former officials as witnesses to testify since the release of Mueller’s report in April. 

Attorney General William BarrBill BarrAttorney indicted on charge of lying to FBI as part of Durham investigation Milley moved to limit Trump military strike abilities after Jan. 6, Woodward book claims: report Former US attorney enters race for governor in Pennsylvania MORE did not appear before the panel in early May when Democrats demanded he be questioned by committee counsels. And Trump blocked former White House counsel Don McGahn from testifying publicly pursuant to a subpoena, citing a Justice Department legal opinion that McGahn is immune from compelled congressional testimony. 

The committee subsequently confronted two empty witness chairs last month as a result. 

Democrats claim that Dean, who served as White House counsel during the Nixon administration, is an ideal witness who can provide historical context of obstruction of justice by the executive branch. Dean was a pivotal figure in the Watergate investigation whose congressional testimony eventually contributed to Nixon’s resignation.

Still, Dean’s impending testimony on Monday is no substitute for that of Mueller or other fact-based witnesses who can offer first-person accounts of the investigation and the episodes the special counsel examined as potentially obstructive acts by Trump. 

“We’re going to start off with witnesses, prosecutors, John Dean and various others who can testify as to the significance of some of the things in the Mueller report,” Nadler told reporters Wednesday. “We want to follow up with fact witnesses, obviously, but we’ll start off with a series of hearings with some of the Republican prosecutors who have said that based on what’s in the Mueller report, they would have filed indictments.” 

The hearing with Dean and former prosecutors will be the committee’s first hearing focused on the details of Mueller’s 448-page report since its release in April.


Nadler had initially sought Mueller’s public testimony on May 15, but that day came and went with no agreement with the special counsel, contributing to rising doubts about his testimony. 

In his first public remarks on the investigation last week, Mueller said he did not want to appear publicly before Congress and underscored that his testimony would not go beyond what is in his report.

On Wednesday, Nadler said negotiations over Mueller’s testimony were still ongoing and acknowledged the possibility the committee may have to subpoena Mueller to compel his appearance. 

“Let’s just say that I’m confident he’ll come in soon,” Nadler said. 

When asked whether he believed Mueller would come willingly, Nadler emphasized the special counsel’s desire to deliver only an opening statement in public and answer questions in private.

“We’re not willing to do that. We want him to testify openly. I think the American people need that. I think, frankly, it’s his duty to the American people, and we’ll make that happen,” Nadler said. 

The White House and Republicans have blasted Democrats’ investigative pursuits as a fishing expedition that aims to hurt Trump heading into 2020. Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsLoeffler meets with McConnell amid speculation of another Senate run Georgia agriculture commissioner launches Senate campaign against Warnock Poll shows tight GOP primary for Georgia governor MORE (Ga.), Judiciary’s top GOP member, urged Nadler this week to call witnesses who can speak on threats from Russia, accusing Nadler of playing “politics related to impeachment” and not focusing on the interference threat. 

The House Intelligence Committee has separately sought testimony from Mueller on Russian interference; a committee aide declined to comment on the status of those negotiations on Wednesday. Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffOvernight Hillicon Valley — Hacking goes global Schiff calls on Amazon, Facebook to address spread of vaccine misinformation Spotlight turns to GOP's McCarthy in Jan. 6 probe MORE (D-Calif.) said this week that the panel will also hold a “series” of hearings on the Mueller investigation. 

It would be a major blow to Democrats if they fail to obtain public testimony from witnesses such as Mueller and McGahn, as they seek to bring to life Trump’s conduct as detailed in Mueller’s report. 

McGahn is viewed as a star witness because he provided extensive testimony to Mueller on possible efforts by Trump to obstruct justice. Mueller did not reach a decision on whether Trump obstructed the investigation, but Barr has deemed the evidence insufficient to accuse Trump of a crime — something Trump has heralded as vindication.

The Judiciary panel has also failed to reach an agreement with the Justice Department for access to Mueller’s full report and underlying evidence, which Nadler issued a subpoena for following the release of the redacted report. 

Democrats plan to vote to hold Barr and McGahn in contempt next week for failing to comply with their demands, marking an aggressive escalation with the Trump administration in an effort to enforce the subpoenas. 

This week, the White House also blocked former aides Hope HicksHope HicksThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - US prepares vaccine booster plan House panel probing Jan. 6 attack seeks Trump records UPDATED: McEnany, Fox News talks on pause MORE and Annie Donaldson from turning over documents to the panel from their time at the White House, raising the likelihood the Trump administration will also try to prevent their compelled testimony later this month. 

The White House has asked the Judiciary Committee to redirect its requests to current counsel Pat Cipollone, arguing that many of the records they are seeking remain under the power of the White House and therefore implicate matters of executive privilege. 

Democrats have pushed back against this characterization, stating that the officials no longer are employed at the White House and that the president cannot assert executive privilege since these officials already gave testimony to Mueller.

The White House has also thus far declined to provide the committee with documents, accusing Nadler of attempting a “do-over” of Mueller’s probe. While these hearings are an attempt by Democrats to navigate around an uncooperative White House, their purpose and worth are being met with mixed opinions. 

Some progressive experts say the Democratic base is restless for the impeachment process to start and that such hearings are merely a sideshow.

“If we believe that working with a hostile foreign power to install Trump as president is worse than Watergate, why open the hearings with a Watergate person unknown to most people under age 50?” said Democratic strategist Christy Setzer. “Until we start seeing actual results — say, Congress securing Trump’s tax returns — hearings will seem like another fruitless exercise undertaken by Democratic leadership.”

Others, however, said hosting such hearings with witnesses like Dean are an opportunity to show the country what the ramifications of an impeachment inquiry would be — and possibly unearth some new information along the way. 

“They are interested in bringing John Dean and others before Congress to talk about not just about the need to collect evidence and comparisons to Nixon, but also what the process actually does to the country,” Democratic strategist Basil Smikle said.

Smikle added that Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Democrats get to the hard part Biden discusses agenda with Schumer, Pelosi ahead of pivotal week Stefanik in ad says Democrats want 'permanent election insurrection' MORE (D-Calif.) and Nadler have been “very good at managing expectations” among the Democratic caucus by focusing on collecting new evidence, stating that most know that opening an impeachment process won’t result in the president being kicked out of office. But if they can unearth new information and evidence, they may be able to pull Republican and independent votes away from Trump in 2020, Smikle said.