House Democrats conducting oversight of the Trump Administration are fighting a war on two fronts: using every legal recourse available to get more information while holding hearings to raise public awareness of potential misconduct.
On Monday, they learned that the first task will be far easier than the second.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler announced that he had reached an agreement with the Department of Justice for his entire committee to access some “key evidence” from former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 election. That averted a potentially messy court fight over access for now.
Two hours later, the committee held its first hearing on the contents of the Mueller report, featuring John Dean, the former White House counsel who testified against Richard Nixon during the Watergate hearings. Lacking a high-profile witness from the Trump Administration, the hearing garnered little notice on cable news, especially after a helicopter crash in New York.
In both cases, the Trump Administration sought to stymie investigators — by withholding evidence and ordering former White House counsel Don McGahn, among other witnesses, not to testify before the committee.
But evidence only goes so far. Changing public opinion on the president may also require the kinds of drama-filled hearings that Trump’s longtime fixer, Michael Cohen, provided when he was under oath.
Nadler’s announcement of the legal win came after weeks of fighting. He issued a subpoena in April for the full report, and his committee voted last month to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for failing to comply.
Congress still plans to vote on Tuesday on a resolution that would effectively hold Barr and McGahn in civil contempt, and affirm the authority of committee chairs to enforce subpoenas in court. But the agreement indicates that a legal fight, at least between Barr and Congress, is probably not imminent.
“We have agreed to allow the Department time to demonstrate compliance with this agreement,” Nadler said in a statement. “If the Department proceeds in good faith and we are able to obtain everything that we need, then there will be no need to take further steps.”
It was a clear victory for Nadler, who has been facing pressure from members on his committee who want to start an impeachment inquiry to speed up the process of obtaining documents.
But while the Dean hearing stayed on script — at least while Democrats were questioning the witnesses — it did little to move the needle.
The room was also filled to the brim, and the line to get in stretched around the hall. There were also certainly some dramatic moments, like Dean telling the committee the last time he testified before them 45 years ago during Nixon’s impeachment inquiry. But mostly, Dean’s presence underscored the absence of witnesses like McGahn, who could talk more about Trump than Nixon.
Lawmakers on the committee have repeatedly stressed that the point of these hearings is to educate the public about the contents of Mueller’s report, which they believe not enough Americans have read.
“This will help us continue to get the information out in front of the people about what exactly has happened,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal said June 4, the day after the hearing was announced. “We’re steeped on it in [the Judiciary Committee] not everybody is. We need to explain … why it’s happening, how do we protect our Constitution and why is it important to everyday American lives.”
Democrats were clearly trying to fulfill that objective, repeatedly quoting from the report and, on one occasion, displaying a timeline of the various ways Trump tried to coerce McGahn to interfere with the investigation. But without McGahn himself, it is virtually impossible that these hearings will garner the blockbuster publicity like Dean’s did 40 years ago.
Still, Nadler held out hope that his legal win on the evidence was a sign that he’ll eventually prevail on his fight to drag key Trump staffers before the cameras.
“It is true that fact witnesses have been ordered by the White House not to appear before this committee,” Nadler said Monday. “But we’ll get them.”