Democratic House members returning from recess this week must tackle another new dilemma over the results of the Russia investigation: what to do about Robert Mueller.
The outgoing Justice Department special counsel has said, in so many words, that he’s said all he’s got to say and that he does not want to appear in what would likely become a traffic-stopping set-piece hearing before a congressional committee.
Key chairmen on those committees want him to testify anyway, but they don’t appear to agree how strongly to push for that. Intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., was asked whether he’d be willing to issue a subpoena.
“That’s a decision that will be above my pay grade,” Schiff told NPR’s Audie Cornish. “I think we’re going to convene when we get back.”
Translation: The handling of Mueller is too sensitive even for the hand-picked chairman of a select committee. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her other lieutenants must have a say.
The Democrats must try to get on the same page about how far they’re willing to go and how hard they’re willing to push, especially if a dispute got to the point of a case in court.
“This is a decision that will implicate the whole House of Representatives,” Schiff said. “It’s not a decision for one committee chair alone because it will implicate the equities of the House, particularly if we get into litigation over it.”
Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., who heads the House Judiciary Committee, also continues to want a hearing with Mueller, he told NPR member station WNYC.
The outgoing special counsel hasn’t closed the door completely, and members of Congress have said they’re continuing to negotiate with the Justice Department over what might be practicable.
But Mueller said last week that he’s reluctant to talk more in public and would do his best to be a boring witness.
“I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress,” he said.
The decision about Mueller is a dispute within a dispute — taking place as Democrats also argue over whether to pursue impeachment proceedings against Trump based on what the special counsel uncovered.
More leaders within the party, including Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, have announced they support impeachment.
Pelosi is much more hesitant, mindful about the need to try to garner support from voters outside her own liberal base.
She also said in San Francisco last week that only a minority of her majority — less than about 20 percent of her members — support impeachment. The speaker argues that impeachment must be bipartisan and it must also have the support of the public.
And before she can try to reach some kind of resolution with the chairmen, Pelosi and her colleagues must decide their strategy for Mueller — whether to move on or to push for a hearing that might mostly be about getting video and audio into the media bloodstream of Mueller discussing the findings he submitted in dry print.
The special counsel has appeared conscious all along about his value as a political show pony. Nadler said earlier to MSNBC that the negotiations he was conducting with Mueller might have resulted in a public opening statement but a closed period for questions and answers with members.
That could still happen, and Nadler told WNYC not to discount the political value of simply having Mueller tell his story in a venue — on TV — to reach more Americans than the bestselling written report.
“Part of the function of Congress, just the same as the Watergate hearings 40 years ago … is a dialogue with the American people, so people can make informed decisions and know what’s going on,” Nadler said. “It’s very important that he — to a television audience and to the American people — state it and answer questions about it, even if there is no new information.”
That, however, creates its own complexities for Pelosi, given the position she has taken. If the effect of Mueller’s public remarks last week was to increase calls for impeachment, including among Democratic presidential hopefuls, might a long hearing mean even more?
If so, that would create an even tougher challenge for a speaker trying to hold together the most liberal Democrats while attempting to retain the ability to reach more moderate voters.
The minority matter
Bringing Mueller before members of Congress also means bringing them before Republicans, however, and Nadler and the rest of the House majority also must decide whether to give the minority members that opening.
Some of President Trump’s allies in Congress have said the closure of Mueller’s office must mean that Washington closes this chapter and move on.
The ranking member of Nadler’s committee, for example, Georgia Republican Rep. Doug Collins, listed a number of priorities he said Congress can now address with the books closed on Russia.
But many Republicans also have rained criticism on Mueller, the FBI and the Justice Department for months. They might seize the chance to question him and turn the focus of a hearing their own way.
Putting the former special counsel in the witness chair would permit questions about investigators’ use of their surveillance powers — the subject of two internal DOJ investigations — the political allegiances of Mueller’s prosecutors and the conduct of FBI officials.
The bureau has been embarrassed by the conduct of a few people connected with its big recent investigations, including an FBI special agent and an attorney who exchanged text messages that criticized Trump during the election.
The choice before Democrats is whether presenting Mueller to a national audience would help them politically because of the testimony he would give — or complicate matters for them because of the questions from Republicans that might muddy the story that Nadler wants to tell.