You know it’s a prominent hearing in Washington when the bars open early for a mass viewing of the star witness before the congressional committees. It last occurred with James Comey, the fired former director of the FBI who outlined issues of presidential interference of the Russia investigation, and the good publicans of Washington are happy to bring happy hour forward by half a day when the House committee hearings with Robert Mueller get underway at 10.30 pm AEST tonight.
As there were two parts to the Mueller report – Russia’s criminal interference in the 2016 presidential election, and whether President Trump illegally obstructed the FBI and Special Counsel investigations of Russia’s attack on the US election – the hearings are in two parts. The House Judiciary Committee will address obstruction issues and the House Intelligence Committee will focus on Russia.
This highly charged day could either be explosive or anticlimactic in the extreme; a nothingburger to go with flat beer after five hours of testimony. As Mueller could not establish, and therefore could not prosecute, a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians, the lion’s share of media attention is on the Judiciary Committee because of Mueller’s conclusion that he could not prosecute a sitting president for obstruction, but could not exonerate him either.
In his report, Mueller effectively told Congress to take further steps as it sees fit. Judiciary will likely go through the 10 instances of possible obstruction of justice outlined in forensic detail in the report, leading to the question that is at the centre of the committee’s deliberations on whether an impeachment proceeding against Trump should begin.
There was a test vote on impeachment sentiment last week, when Rep Al Green (D-Texas) sought to bring up a resolution to initiate impeachment proceedings. Only 95 of 235 Democrats supported the resolution. The American people do not support impeachment. If the House impeaches, the Senate will never convict. The political blowback could cripple the Democrats in 2020.
But the reason impeachment is not dead is that there is a growing frustration with Trump’s stonewalling of inquiries by House committees into the White House and Executive Branch. The denial of testimony and documents, the lawsuits against congressional subpoenas, and the White House efforts to de-legitimise congressional oversight are obstructing the ability of the House of Representatives to discharge its Article I powers under the Constitution.
The tipping point on impeachment, therefore, is whether Mueller’s appearances tonight leave the overwhelming majority of Democrats with the judgment that Trump has obstructed justice to such an extent that the House of Representatives must take the action authorised under the Constitution to bring to account a president who, in their eyes, is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors.
There has been discussion among House Democrats about considering a resolution of censure against Trump that would capture all the activities that have impeded the effective work of Congress, and that addresses a litany of corrupt activity. This would take last week’s resolution of condemnation for Trump’s attacks on four congresswomen an order-of-magnitude step further, allowing the House to express its damning judgement on Trump, but without the consequences of impeachment.
The considered judgement of the House leadership is, however, that if a decisive majority of House Democrats believe that impeachment is required by the record of its committees’ investigations of Trump, then impeach. If not, don’t. That is the lens through which we should look at Mueller’s testimony.
What should not be lost is the session Mueller will likely enjoy far more: his discussion with the Intelligence Committee of what Russia did, and how the United States must take further action to prevent the foreign corruption of the 2020 elections. On this, Mueller will shine, and will be heard.