Will Mueller's testimony damage President Trump?

With former special counsel set to testify live on television, will Democrats land a blow on the president, or will their efforts backfire?

Robert Mueller, who served as special counsel for the US Department of Justice
(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Late on Tuesday, Democrats from the US Congress revealed that, after weeks of negotiations, Robert S. Mueller III had agreed to face questions on his Special Counsel Report - live on television - before two House committees.

While the testimony, scheduled for July 17, has been a cause for excitement for Trump’s opponents, it should be remembered that in Mueller’s sole public appearance he was clear: he was reluctant to testify, because the report “speaks for itself”, and if he did, he “would not provide information beyond that which is already public.”

In short, Mueller will likely continue his policy of simply reading from the report, the redacted form of which is already available for anyone to read.

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Given this, is there any chance the testimony will hurt the president politically, or will he prove as impervious as ever?

How the Testimony will work

Mueller will sit for four sessions. The House Intelligence Committee will focus on volume I of the report, which is concerned with collusion and conspiracy with the Russian government. The House Judiciary Committee will focus on volume II, which deals with whether or not the president obstructed justice.

Both committees will sit for one public, televised session on the redacted report, and a closed hearing that will focus on the full, unredacted report.

Why are Democrats so determined to question Mueller in public?

While there are varying motivations driving the Democrat and Republican committee members who will question Mueller, there is a consensus that the testimony will be less about obtaining new information, and more about narrative control. Fundamentally, Trump’s critics believe the report is damaging, but that its density and length mean the vast majority of Americans will only be exposed to it through the media.

“The hearings are certain to draw serious media attention, which at least gives Democrats a high-profile way to illustrate the report’s main findings – which are far more damning than Trump’s ‘no collusion, no obstruction’ mantra suggests,” Jonathan Bernstein reflects in Bloomberg. “Because of the way information now spreads, the testimony could have a greater impact than the publication of the report itself. Even reading the main conclusions out loud will help whatever audience tunes in... have a better sense of the full weight of the findings.”

Democrats say that the narrative around the report was hijacked, when Trump’s Attorney General William Barr released a summary prior to its release. As Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said, “Barr led a campaign of misinformation to deceive the American people about what was in the report. The president joined in by repeatedly saying ‘no collusion, no obstruction’ — which is not what the report found.”

However, Democrats will also try to extract from Mueller his opinion on certain matters. As the LA Times points out, the report “left unanswered questions, most notably whether Mueller would have accused Trump of obstruction of justice if the Justice Department hadn’t decided that a sitting president couldn’t be indicted. The report mentioned that long-standing policy, but it left unclear whether Mueller believed that, in the absence of such a directive, he would have concluded that Trump committed a crime.

CNN reports that there are 79 House Democrats calling for an impeachment inquiry into Trump. For them the stakes are high: “Mueller's appearance amounts to a make-or-break moment for the House impeachment caucus. If the special counsel's testimony falls flat or doesn't change minds, it could deflate the momentum for impeachment.”

Republican goals

“Republicans will try to cast their political opponents as intent on impeaching the president and unwilling to let go of an investigation that ended months ago without charges against Trump,” says the Washington Post, “while some are likely attack Mueller for his team’s perceived missteps.”

As Douglas A. Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said, he believed Mueller’s testimony would “bring to House Democrats the closure that the rest of America has enjoyed for months.”

The risk for Democrats

If Mueller gives Democrats what they want, this could be the moment the special counsel's report finally damages the president politically. However, if Mueller is reticent or uncooperative, and does not provide any newsworthy comments or information, Democrats run the risk of looking foolish - even conniving - in their attempt to keep the report in the public sphere.

The New York Times reports that “Several Republicans predicted on Wednesday that the appearance would backfire on Democrats trying to damage Mr. Trump.”

As one senior Democrat aide said anonymously to the Washington Post: “This can backfire. Big time.”

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William Gritten

William Gritten is a London-born, New York-based strategist and writer focusing on politics and international affairs.