Mueller Hearings on Wednesday Present Make-or-Break Moment for Democrats

Mueller Hearings on Wednesday Present Make-or-Break Moment for Democrats

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 the very least, severely damage his re-election prospects. On Wednesday, in back-to-back hearings with the former special counsel, that wish could face its final make-or-break moment.

Lawmakers choreographing the hearings before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees warn that bombshell disclosures are unlikely. But over about five hours of nationally televised testimony, 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 Kremlin assistance and the president’s repeated and legally dubious efforts to thwart investigators.

For a party divided over how to confront Mr. Trump — liberals versus moderates, supporters of impeachment versus staunch opponents — the stakes could scarcely be higher.

“One way or the other, the Mueller hearing will be a turning point with respect to the effort to hold Donald Trump accountable for his reckless, degenerate, aberrant and possibly criminal behavior,” said Representative Hakeem 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 concerning our oversight responsibilities and the constitutional tools that are available to us.”

“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 administration malfeasance will go on, and those inquiries could yet inflict political damage on the 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, above the political maw of Washington, and delivered it this spring with a modicum of words and drama.

Mr. Mueller is unlikely to level new charges on Wednesday against the president. Unlike Leon Jaworski, the Watergate prosecutor who persuaded a 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 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 Justice Department policies prevented him from even considering whether to charge.

Mr. Mueller, 74, is unlikely to change course now — particularly after he used his lone public appearance in May to clarify that any testimony he delivered would not stray from his report.

“We go in eyes wide open,” said Representative Peter Welch, a Vermont Democrat on the Intelligence Committee. “His style under the most effusive of circumstances is almost monosyllabic.”

“The overwhelming majority of the American people are unfamiliar with the principal conclusions of the Mueller report, so that will be a starting point,” Mr. Jeffries said. “To the extent that Bob Mueller can explain his conclusions, particularly as it relates to possible criminal culpability of the president, that will be compelling information.”

Democrats on the Intelligence Committee will use the second hearing to highlight evidence from the report’s 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 are expressing little concern about the 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 that 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 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 toward 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 Mr. Trump provides the Democrats, including an across-the-board refusal to comply with the House’s investigations and comments that four liberal congresswomen of color should “go back” to their own countries. A handful of House Democrats this week announced their support for impeachment, pushing the total toward 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, although no final determination has been made.”

But the announced support is still far short of the 218 needed to impeach the president and send charges to the Senate for a trial, and moderate Democrats from Republican-leaning districts have quietly fumed at the position they are being put in.

As the most powerful Democrat against impeachment, Ms. 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 counseled lawmakers “to have a level of calmness, no drama” about the questioning at the Mueller hearing, according to a senior aide, and she and her deputies will be watching how or if public sentiment shifts after Wednesday.

No need to “hype it,” she has advised — Mr. Mueller’s words will carry power.

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