With the special counsel not enthusiastic about testifying in front of Congress, House Democrats turned to legal commentators — and a Watergate participant-turned-witness — in their effort to put the Mueller report front and center.
And while they got into more of the substance of the report than in previous Mueller-related proceedings (subpoena mark-ups and the like that were more focused on process fights around getting Mueller’s underlying evidence) today’s hearing wasn’t exactly a banger.
To Democrats’ credit, there was an unusually long line, at the hearing’s outset, of members of the public seeking to watch the hearing. And three hours into the hearing, the room was still mostly full, which was not nothing given that the room temperature was much warmer than what committee rooms are usually kept at. The number of Democratic lawmakers themselves on the dais began to dwindle fairly early in the hearing.
News of a helicopter crash in New York broke right when they were getting started — and that accident dominated the cable news networks that Democrats had hoped could be used to better educate TV watchers of the findings of Mueller’s obstruction inquiry.
More broadly, Democrats were also constrained by the types of witnesses they could use for that education project. Because the administration is stonewalling on letting any of Mueller’s fact witnesses testify before Congress, House Judiciary Democrats relied on legal commentators, who were working off of the same public Mueller report available to anyone else, to hit its major highlights.
Those witnesses, both former federal prosecutors, were thorough in their analysis, but not exactly the most exciting speakers. The day’s spiciest moments came when Republicans spared with John Dean, the Dems’ third witness — a key figure in the Watergate cover-up as both a participant and a witness — who also played the role of legal commentator.
When they weren’t beating up on Dean, Republicans had a commentator of their own — an expert from the conservative Heritage Foundation — to provide counter-spin.
Dean and the other two Dem witness, Barbara McQuade and Joyce White Vance, did their best to defend Mueller’s work and explain his decision not to formally say whether Trump committed criminal obstruction.
They stressed that the 10 episodes highlighted by Mueller had to be read as a pattern and provided reactions to key parts of the report read aloud by the members.
But the hearing lacked the the gravitas that might come from hearing the major of points of the report from Mueller’s own mouth, as the public did when he announced his resignation. And the Dean spats aside, it lacked the dramatics of the testimony of someone who witnessed Trump’s conduct firsthand — the closest congressional Democrats have come to that was perhaps the testimony of Michael Cohen, who touched on some but not all of the topics in Mueller’s report.
In his opening statement, Nadler made clear that this was just a first shot at getting the public attention Democrats want on the Mueller report, with a reference to a resolution the House will vote on Tuesday that will let him bring his subpoena fight with Don McGahn to court. “It is my expectation that, as a result of this authorization, Mr. McGahn will testify here before long,” he said.