WASHINGTON – For more than two years, Democrats have hoped that Robert S. Mueller III would show the nation that President Trump is unfit for office – or, at least, severely damage his re-election prospects. On Wednesday, in back-to-back hearings with the former special counsel, that would be able to make its final make-or-break moment.
Lawmakers choreographing the hearings before House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees warn that bombshell disclosures are unlikely. But over about five hours of nationally televised testimonies, they hope to use Mr. Mueller, the enigmatic and widely respected former F.B.I. director, to refashion his legalistic 448-page report into a vivid, compelling narrative of Russia's attempts to undermine American democracy, the Trump campaign's willingness to accept the Kremlin assistance and the president's repeated and legally dubious efforts to thwart investigators
"One way or the other, the Mueller hearing will be a turning point with regard to the effort to hold Donald Trump accountable for his reckless, degenerate, aberrant and possibly criminal behavior, "said Representative Hake Jeffries of New York, the House Democratic Caucus chairman and a member of the Judiciary Committee. "After the hearing, we will be able to have a better understanding of the pathway forward regarding our oversight responsibilities and the constitutional tools that are available to us."
Partisans in both parties may have already made their minds, but Democrats has counting on Mr. Mueller's testimony is to focus the broad public's attention on the findings of his 22-month investigation – either to jumpstart and stop the impeachment push or electrify the campaign to make Mr.
Even Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has been a voice of caution on impeachment for much of the year, has tied the testimony to Democrats' broader political prospects. election, it is really an election that the fate of this country is riding on, "she told House Democrats at a private meeting recently, according to an aide who was there. "This presidency is an existential threat to our democracy and our country as we know it."
Democratic hopes are rising on an unlikely horse. Mr. Mueller has made his reluctance to testify widely known, and his appearance could easily backfire. If the hearings fail to sizzle, the viewing public could be left to agree with the president that it is time to move on.
"A lot of public attitudes have hardened on the subject of Trump and Russia," said Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee. "So I'm realistic about the impact of any one hearing on public attitudes."
No matter what happens, House investigators say their inquiries into possible obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump and other accusations of malfeasance administration will go on, and those inquiries could still cause political damage to President's re-election prospects or even re-energize impeachment talk
But perhaps no other witness can command the authority of Mr. Mueller, who conducted his work in silence, over the political maw of Washington, and delivered it this spring with a modicum of words and drama. Mueller is unlikely to level new charges on Wednesday against the president. Unlike Leon Jaworski, the Watergate Prosecutor who persuaded Grand Jury to name President Richard M. Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator, or Ken Starr, the independent counsel who made a convincing case for President Bill Clinton's impeachment, Mr. Mueller has left a more ambiguous trail
His report detailed the dozens of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, painting a portrait of a campaign willing to accept foreign assistance. But it did not find enough evidence to charge anyone with conspiring with the Russians. And though Mr. Mueller pointedly declined to exonerate Mr. Trump from obstructing his investigation, he took the view that the Justice Department policies prevented him from even considering whether to charge
Mr. Mueller, 74, is unlikely to change course now – especially after he used his lone public appearance in May to clarify that any testimony he delivered would not leave his report
"We go in eyes wide open," said Representative Peter Welch, and Vermont Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. "His style under the most effusive of circumstances is almost monosyllabic."
Knowing that Mr. Mueller is unlikely to take the bait on more explosive questions, Democrats see their role as coaxing him through some of the most damaging passages of his report.
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee will have the first opportunity, and they intend to dwell heavily on five of the most glaring episodes of possible obstruction of justice that Mr. Mueller documented in the second volume of his report. They include Mr. Trump's direction to the former White House counselor Donald F. McGahn II to fire Mr. Mueller and then publicly lie about it; its request that Corey Lewandowski, and former campaign chief, ask Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reassert control of the investigation and limit its scope;
Many lawmakers, including the Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, view the behavior in at least some of those episodes as reaching the threshold of high crime and misdemeanors, established in the Constitution as grounds for impeachment. They will try to ask Mr. Mueller's views – tacitly or explicitly
"The overwhelming majority of the American people are unfamiliar with the main conclusions of the Mueller report, so it will be a starting point." Jeffries said. "
Democrats on the Intelligence Committee will use the second hearing to highlight evidence from the report's report, first volume about Russia's social media disinformation and hacking operations during the 2016 campaign and high-profile contacts between Trump associates and Russians offering assistance to Mr. Trump's presidential campaign.
Republicans have little to say about Democrats' strategy. Mr. Mueller's style and his prosecutorial conclusions will "blow up in their face," said Representative Steve Chabot, Republican of Ohio, who helped prosecute the impeachment case against Mr. Clinton
"Back then, Starr came out pretty clearly and said he felt there were impeachable offenses that had been committed," Mr. Chabot said. "Now we have a special counsel who, at this point, is saying no. We have invested so much time and money and taxpayer dollars in this that we should give considerable weight in that. "
Time is not on the side of impeachment advocates. Congress's six-week August recess is at hand. A fiscal deadline is likely to dominate Congress when it returns, and with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3, the nation's attention is likely to shift towards the 2020 presidential campaign. A recent NBC / Wall Street Journal poll found that support for opening impeachment hearings based on current evidence had dropped among registered voters from June to July, to just 21 percent. Fifty percent said it was time for the country to move on.
Support in the House is somewhat higher and continues to grow with every fresh outrage. Trump provides the Democrats, including an over-the-board refusal to comply with House's investigations and comments, that four liberal congresswomen of color should "go back" to their own countries. And a handful of House Democrats this week announced their support for impeachment, pushing the total to 90, according to a New York Times tally
And Mr. Nadler formally acknowledged for the first time this month that impeachment articles were "under consideration as part of the committee's investigation, though no final determination was made."
But the announced support is still far short of the 218 needed to imppeach president and send charges to the Senate for trial, and moderate Democrats from Republican-leaning districts have quietly fumed at the position they are put in.
As the most powerful Democrat against impeachment, Pelosi fears an attempt to oust Mr. Trump would backfire on Democrats and further divide the country unless her party can build broader support. She has advised lawmakers "to have a level of calm, no drama" about the questioning at Mueller hearing, according to a senior aide, and she and her deputies will be watching the public sentiment shifts after Wednesday
No need to "hype it," she has advised – Mr. Mueller's words will carry power.