Editor’s Note: Josh Campbell is a CNN analyst covering national security issues. He previously served as a Supervisory Special Agent with the FBI, special assistant to the bureau’s director and is the author of a forthcoming book on the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation. Follow him on Twitter at @joshscampbell. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
We are about to witness something extraordinary.
In this period of unprecedented national political polarization, former special counsel Robert Mueller will soon do something no American statesman or elected official has been able to accomplish in modern times: unite the nation.
Of course, rather than uniting America around a central principle or set of facts as it relates to his nearly two-year-long investigation into Russia’s election interference, he will instead bring Republicans and Democrats together in shared frustration when he faces the hot seat on Wednesday.
For their part, his most vocal critics on the Republican side of the aisle will finally have an opportunity to seek their pound of flesh and grill Mueller on a number of issues and conspiracies that have been central to President Donald Trump’s efforts to publicly bill Mueller as a conflicted crook.
“Why did he fill out his team with so many ‘angry’ Democrats?” they may ask – a reference to the members of his staff whose Federal Elections Commission disclosures show donated money in the past to Democratic candidates. And didn’t the presence of Peter Strzok, the fired FBI special agent who served a stint on Mueller’s team before the discovery of disparaging text messages about Trump caused him to be booted from the investigation, prove that the entire operation was a sham from the beginning?
While they’re at it, we can expect the GOP members of the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees to go full-bore on their (as yet unjustified) claims the FBI illegally surveilled the Trump campaign during the course of their investigation. This issue is presently under investigation by the Justice Department’s independent Inspector General, but, if past is prologue, we shouldn’t expect the pending nature of that review to temper Republican demands for immediate answers from Mueller. We can also expect the former special counsel to dismiss these baseless allegations as nonsense.
Those of us who have studied Congress long enough know that contentious hearings typically follow the same pattern: one side of the aisle spends their time attacking a controversial witness, while their colleagues on the other side of the aisle spend theirs trying to rehabilitate the witness.
What is certain to make the Mueller hearings unique will be the speed with which the historical script goes out the window once Mueller equally exhausts all patience on the Democratic side of the aisle. In fact, I suspect we’ll begin to see signs of frustration by Democrats before we even hit the half-hour mark.
The reason stems from the fact that Mueller has signaled he has no intention to go beyond the four corners of his 448-page final report. He said so explicitly the first and last time we heard from him during a brief statement to reporters at the Justice Department in May.
With so many lingering questions remaining about what Mueller was thinking when he failed to bring charges against a sitting president, who Mueller also happened to show potentially obstructed justice multiple times, progressive members of the committees will almost certainly find themselves angered by a witness refusing to give them what they want.
To be sure, Mueller’s reticence stems not from a penchant for stonewalling, but rather a discomfort with grandstanding. I know from having helped prepare Mueller for public appearances during my time at the FBI that the former director absolutely loathes facing the press and Congress. Indeed, I can count on one hand the number of times he willingly stepped before the microphones – without prodding and with the intention of making news.
That said, there are certain tactics Democrats can try to employ as they both attempt to determine the perfect Mueller sound bite and help the American people understand his state of mind. Contrary to the conventional way journalists and members of Congress gather information from witnesses – deploying open-ended questions that allow for a robust response – his inquisitors should instead opt for the types of questions that will permit Mueller the ability to answer in a yes/no format.
I know from both having worked for him and witnessing his public testimony over the past decade and a half that he is typically comfortable responding to questioning in a clipped manner, opting for powerful terse replies rather than waxing poetic.
For example, if Trump wasn’t President, would he have been indicted based on the information you unearthed? Yes or no?
Is it true that your report exonerated the President? Yes or no?
Did the White House fully cooperate with your investigation as the Attorney General, William Barr, claimed? Yes or no?
Did the President obstruct justice? Yes or no?
If members of Congress ask open-ended questions, Mueller will likely pivot back to his report and refuse to expound further. However, questions that allow for a simple yes or no may bear more fruit.
This isn’t to say either political party will succeed in getting Mueller to say anything he’s not prepared to disclose – and they are all likely to leave the committee rooms even more frustrated than when they entered – but at the very least a style of questioning that meets him on his favored terrain has greater potential to yield more information in the public interest.