Democrats want Mueller to tell swing voters what Trump did wrong

Analysis: Dems want to make more swing voters aware that the Mueller report, far from exonerating Trump, contains significant evidence of wrongdoing.
Image: Robert Mueller Testimony
Polls show that as few as 10 percent of Americans have read any part of special counsel Robert Mueller's 448-page reportAdrian Lam / NBC News

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By Ken Dilanian

WASHINGTON — When Cathy Garnaat, a Republican voter in Michigan, told NBC News in May she was unaware the Mueller report said "anything negative" about President Donald Trump, it was a bracing illustration of a stark reality: While America's political class has been obsessively following the two-year investigation into Russia's efforts to help Trump win the presidency, most of the country has not.

Polls show that as few as 10 percent of Americans have read any part of former special counsel Robert Mueller's 448-page report — and that the news coverage of the report's release did not change what has long been a partisan split verdict on Trump and Russia.

On Wednesday, Democrats are hoping to disrupt that dynamic by questioning Mueller in five hours of televised public hearings before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees. They say they intend to guide the former FBI director into presenting a movie version of his dense and lawyerly tome, bringing to life what they consider a deeply disturbing story of a president who welcomed help from a foreign adversary and then tried mightily to cover it up.

But in their quieter moments, some senior Democrats acknowledge that Wednesday's hearings are unlikely to significantly change public opinion about Trump, let alone push more House members down the path toward supporting impeachment.

"We should be very circumspect about how catalytic an event this is going to be," Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff of California, a Democrat who will lead his committee's questioning of Mueller, told NBC News. "People are pretty dug in on their views on this matter."

While some Democrats have touted the Mueller hearings as a potential turning point in their quest to hold Trump accountable for what they see as his historic misdeeds, their basic ambition is more modest: to help make more swing voters aware that the Mueller report, far from exonerating Trump, contains significant evidence of wrongdoing that many prosecutors say would have led to Trump's indictment were he not president.

But even accomplishing that much won't be easy. Republicans plan to spend their half of the two hearings attacking the premise of the investigation and highlighting what they and their base have come to believe, without evidence, is FBI misconduct at the heart of the probe.

"Remember, the Mueller report is a one-sided report," Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, ranking Republican on judiciary, told The Associated Press. "It has not been questioned from the other side. This is our chance to do that."

And Democrats expect Mueller to be a reticent and difficult witness. First, he decided not to reach a conclusion in his report about the obstruction of justice evidence he had uncovered. Then he made a choice — one not required by law or policy, Democrats argue — to promise to avoid saying anything that isn't in his report.

"He's been savaged for two years by Trump and the right-wing pundits on Fox, and I think he's ready to have his life back," Schiff said. "And we have to decide how much do we want to spend our time fighting with him for things outside the report, when there is an awful lot damning that's in the report."

At the hearing, Mueller will have a short opening statement, according to his spokesman, Jim Popkin — and he will also seek to enter his report into the congressional record.

In his only public remarks at a news conference on May 29, he said: "Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis, and the reasons for the decisions we made. We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself. The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress."

Given that, Democrats say they plan to walk Mueller through a process of highlighting the report's most significant findings, including Trump's directing of his White House counsel, Don McGahn, to fire the special counsel; and the president's order to aide Corey Lewandowski to direct Attorney General Jeff Sessions to tell the special counsel to limit his investigations. Neither order was carried out, but the Mueller report highlights the conduct as evidence of attempted obstruction. Many former prosecutors say they have made felony cases with less.

"Our focus is really going to be to have the special counsel talk about what the evidence is that he found — less about what the legal conclusion was — because some of the actual evidence is very concerning and has not received the attention it's due," one Democratic aide said during a briefing for reporters last week. "For the Americans who are watching this hearing on television, if any of them had done the kinds of things that the director established evidence of, they would be criminally charged for obstruction of justice. … The hearing will, we hope, help people at home to understand the gravity of the president's misconduct."

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On the question of Trump campaign interactions with Russians, Schiff said the Mueller report presented a disturbing story, even though Mueller said he did not find evidence to prove coordination or conspiracy.

"You have a Russian offer of assistance in the election. You have literally in writing the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of what is described as the Russian government's effort to help Donald Trump. And you have the Trump campaign in writing, accepting the offer," Schiff told NBC's Kristen Welker on Saturday at the Aspen Security Forum. "That evidence of collusion is damning whether it can be prosecuted or not."

The extent to which this narrative is presented coherently at Wednesday's hearing will depend on whether a couple of dozen elected politicians can put aside parochial interests and work together as a team.

"I wouldn't expect, nor do I think serious people expect, an 'aha' moment where somebody starts to sob and say, 'It was me, I was wrong,'" said Robert Raben, an assistant attorney general under Bill Clinton who has been advising House and Senate Judiciary members."The Democrats' job is to tell a sharp and coherent narrative."

Democratic staffers said that was the plan — and that they had prepared more for this moment than any previous hearing in their careers.

"I think it's going to be very compelling," Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., told NBC News. "Our responsibility is to use the special counsel to tell the American people the story of what happened. People understand this is a very significant moment in our oversight responsibilities."

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With Mueller insisting both publicly and privately that he will not go beyond the written word of his report, Democrats have resigned themselves to focusing mainly on having him explore its contents. They know, Schiff and others said, that Mueller isn't going to answer the question they most want addressed: Whether Mueller believes he could have indicted Trump had Justice Department policy not ruled out charging a sitting president — and whether Trump can be indicted once he leaves office.

"He's not going to answer that question," Schiff told Welker on Saturday in Aspen.

Former prosecutor and NBC News contributor Glenn Kirschner said Democrats would do well to avoid trying to prompt Mueller to go beyond the report.

"There's so much information in the report that the public needs to hear that. They ought to stick to eliciting that," he said. "That's blockbuster information."

The issue, though, is that while Democrats view it as a blockbuster, Republicans and independents do not.

An April NBC News Wall Street Journal poll showed that about 46 percent of Americans had heard something about the Mueller report, which is not a high number, said Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates, who worked on the poll.

By contrast, he said, 76 percent of Americans had heard about the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

The same poll shows that most political independents do not believe the Mueller report exonerates Trump, as he keeps saying it does. And most believe he has not been honest about the Russia matter.

But only about a fifth of independents favor impeachment.

"Independents are not with him on this, but they are far from the point of saying that we should hold impeachment hearings," Horwitt said.

Democrats may have another problem in conveying their narrative: Mueller himself. He is not only a reluctant witness, he is a skillful one. He has testified on Capitol Hill 88 times, the New York Times found, and during those appearances he showed himself to be a master of avoiding questions he didn't want to answer.

"He's quite experienced at testifying before Congress, and those of us who have done that know not to answer hypotheticals," said NBC News analyst Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney who once worked for Mueller and later served as acting head of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

"What I think you'll hear from Mueller are not value judgments or conjecture or opinion, but rather an adherence to the report."

Mueller's past history before Congress also points to the risk for Republican members, some of whom have already publicly accused him of conducting a biased, unethical investigation.

A lifelong Republican and Vietnam combat veteran, Mueller doesn't show emotion often, but when he does, it can be quite compelling.

In a February 2003 hearing, Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., challenged then-FBI Director Mueller in a five-minute diatribe on what he suggested was a litany of FBI failures, and he declared the FBI had not yet reformed itself.

"Senator, you have overlooked a great deal of the good work the FBI has done the last 17 months in connecting the dots," Mueller said, leaning into the microphone.

"I have offered you an opportunity, personally, to come down to the bureau and be briefed on the changes that we have made since Sept. 11. You have declined to come down," Mueller added, speaking loudly over Edwards.

Mueller then challenged Edwards again on the question of whether the FBI should be divided into separate law enforcement and intelligence agencies, an idea the director heartily opposed.

When he was finished, he leaned back in the witness chair and nodded his head.

Edwards' proposal to split the FBI did not move forward.

Heidi Przybyla, Alex Moe, Pete Williams and Kristen Welker contributed.