Doyle McManus: Coming soon: Impeachment for dummies |
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Doyle McManus: Coming soon: Impeachment for dummies

Special counsel Robert Mueller speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington, about the Russia investigation. To prepare for next week’s high stakes hearing with Mueller, some Democratic members and staff are watching old video of his previous testimony. Others are closely re-reading Mueller’s 448-page report. And most of them are worrying about how they’ll make the most their short time in front of the stern, reticent former FBI director.

WASHINGTON — Robert S. Mueller III isn’t expected to roll out any bombshells when he testifies before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees on July 24.

“The report is my testimony,” he said in May, the first time he had spoken in public in nearly two years.

But that’s OK. The special counsel’s on-camera performance will still be useful, even if all he offers is a not-very-dramatic reading of his 448-page report on Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election and the president’s subsequent attempts to stymie the investigation.

Even in the age of Twitter, more Americans still get their news from television than any other source. Even most members of Congress don’t claim to have read Mueller’s two-volume report. “Tedious,” explained Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

So the Democrats’ goal in holding these hearings is transparent: They hope to maneuver Mueller into boiling down his report to an easily digestible video clip that voters will remember.

Call it “impeachment for dummies.” The Democrats aren’t formally impeaching President Trump — yet. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi still stands in the way. But they hope Mueller’s testimony will build support for the idea.

The first thing they want Mueller to do is to correct the record.

Trump and Atty. Gen. William Barr have repeated their misleading summary of the report’s findings for months — “No Collusion, No Obstruction, Complete and Total EXONERATION,” in the president’s dumbed-down version — and the message has sunk in.

Polls show almost half of voters believe Trump’s claim. If Mueller says it’s not true, that video clip will give Democrats ammunition.

Here’s what the Mueller report actually said: There were “numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign,” but not enough evidence to show that Trump and the Russians deliberately conspired.

There was even more evidence that the president tried to obstruct official investigations. But Mueller said Justice Department rules prevented him from considering criminal charges.

“While this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” the special counsel wrote. “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”

If Mueller merely recites those two findings on camera, Democrats will count it as a win.

So here are the first two questions members of Congress should ask:

Did your investigation establish that there was “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia?

Did your investigation establish that there was “no obstruction” by the president or his aides?

The answer to both questions, from any careful reading of the report, is no.

Depending on how crisp Mueller’s answer is, there’s your soundbite.

Even without bombshells, there will be moments of suspense. Will the special counsel be clear and concise, or will he swaddle his findings in impenetrable legal jargon?

And the biggest question: Can one day of hearings restore momentum to the Democrats’ many investigations, which appear becalmed in the summer heat?

Democrats want to use Mueller’s findings as a prologue for future televised hearings.

The Judiciary Committee has subpoenaed a dozen of the special counsel’s witnesses, including presidential advisor Jared Kushner, former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions and former national security advisor Michael Flynn.

The Intelligence Committee, meanwhile, is seeking witnesses and records that will provide evidence about the Trump family’s business dealings with Russians, a subject Mueller did not investigate.

The president has responded with a version of the strategy President Clinton successfully used when he was accused of misconduct in office in 1998: Deny the charges, attack the investigators, rally your base — and tell voters that the investigation is a dangerous distraction from more important business.

“It is taking a long time because the president is engaged in an unprecedented campaign of obstruction,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-California, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, told me. “They’re doing everything they can to obstruct us.”

“I think their expectation is if they can push this out somewhere beyond the 2020 election, it’s a complete success,” he added.

But the president’s strategy has been only partially successful. Polls show the country is divided over the idea of impeaching Trump, but public support for continuing to investigate him is strong.

Proponents of impeachment hope that testimony from Mueller and others will bring more voters to their side.

“Look at Watergate. When those hearings began, only a minority supported impeaching the president,” Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California, a member of the Judiciary Committee, told me.

It’s a good point. In 1974, most Americans didn’t favor impeaching Nixon until after the House Judiciary Committee held formal hearings on the issue and approved articles of impeachment.

If you’re looking for a Perry Mason moment when Mueller is sworn in — a sudden revelation that makes everything fall into place — you’ll be looking in the wrong place.

His appearance won’t be the climactic moment of this political drama. It’s only one act in a story that may have a long way to run.

Doyle McManus, Washington columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has reported on national and international issues from Washington for more than 30 years.

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