House Democrats are diving into a week of intense preparations ahead of Robert Mueller’s testimony to ensure they maximize their limited time with the former special counsel, amid new fears that the high-profile appearance may lack the impact they are seeking to firmly shift public opinion against President Donald Trump.
The hearing is being billed as a make-or-break moment for Democrats pressing for the House to begin an impeachment inquiry into the President, with advocates predicting his appearance will convince the public of the seriousness of the alleged crimes detailed in the sweeping report.
But Mueller’s time before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees will be limited, with each panel currently expected to have roughly two hours back-to-back with the former special counsel – split equally between Democrats and Republicans. Lawmakers are beginning to raise alarms they won’t have enough time to press Mueller, who has already warned he would not go beyond the findings in his report.
“It does concern me,” Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told CNN. “That is definitely not going to be enough time.”
Bass added: “You could spend two hours on the executive summary. … I think that’s what’s going to happen, after two hours, we’re going to be frustrated and want him to come back.”
Behind the scenes, the preparations are intensifying. Aides on both committees are furiously preparing lines of questioning to divide up among the members. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee and on the House Intelligence Committee each have separate closed-door meetings this week to go over their strategy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is being kept apprised of the preparations, sources say.
Leaving their closed-door meeting Wednesday evening, Judiciary Committee Democrats said negotiations continued about the format of the hearing, including the possibility of extending it, though it’s unclear whether Mueller’s team will consider that.
And Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have been urged to re-read the 448-page Mueller report to have a mastery of the subject during their questioning. On his way into a Tuesday morning caucus meeting, Democratic Rep. Jim Himes, a member of the committee from Connecticut, was holding a copy of the report’s findings on obstruction of justice.
“We spent a lot of time organizing ourselves to make sure that we take most advantage of the time,” Himes said. “This is not going to be a whole bunch of members freelancing. This will be organized.”
But Himes had this warning: “I don’t think anybody should expect much news out of this hearing. Bob Mueller has said that his report is his testimony. He’s one of the most disciplined men in Washington, DC, so I don’t think any of us are expecting big headlines out of this testimony.”
The logistics are amounting to a major challenge for Democrats. If Mueller dodges their questions or leaves topics hanging, they will have to follow up with him and pin him down when necessary. But at the same time, sources say, each member is expected to have a pre-approved line of questioning to ensure they hit all of the key topics and don’t freelance.
Some privately worry that it may be difficult to hit those pre-approved topics while following up with Mueller – all within a very short time frame.
“I think we have to resist the impulse to editorialize,” said Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee. “We want to give the special counsel the opportunity to speak directly to the American people … to punch through the fog of propaganda left by Attorney General (William) Barr.”
What’s more: GOP lawmakers are preparing to focus their questioning to raise concerns over the credibility of the Mueller probe, namely the origins of the investigation and the opposition research dossier that helped the FBI obtain a surveillance warrant on a Trump adviser.
Recognizing this dynamic, Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN Tuesday that his members will have to be “economical in our questions and be very well organized.”
“Well, we would love more time, but we’re going to make the best use of that time we possibly can,” Schiff said.