The Slatest

Don’t Try to Ask Robert Mueller “Good” Questions. Ask Him Effective Ones

Side by side closeups of Schiff and Nadler.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler. Photos by Drew Angerer/Getty Images and Alex Wong/Getty Images.

What should Democrats in Congress ask Robert Mueller when he testifies before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees on Wednesday? (The fun starts when Judiciary gets going at 8:30 a.m.; Intel’s round is scheduled for noon.) Reporters and pundits at the New York Times, Washington Post, Wired, Politico, the Hill, Just Security, Lawfare, and the Daily Beast have all weighed in—as has House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, in a memo given to Axios.

Reading all of these suggestions at once is a reminder that, though the news cycle moved on, there are still a number of open, potentially explosive questions about Russia/Trump-related subjects that the special counsel’s report did not answer or that it addressed in sections that were, for various reasons, redacted. Among them: How extensively did Trump associate Roger Stone coordinate the release of stolen Democratic emails with WikiLeaks? Why didn’t Mueller believe that national security adviser Michael Flynn’s post-election discussions of sanctions with Russia’s ambassador constituted a quid pro quo criminal conspiracy? Did Mueller think the Trump campaign’s behavior was corrupt and unethical in a manner that should be prohibited by new laws even if it wasn’t criminal according to current ones? Did he end his investigation while a number of related court cases—such as Stone’s—were still open because of pressure from partisan-hackery-inclined Attorney General William Barr? (Most of the articles presume that the substantive questions will be asked by Democrats because Republicans will be off in Candy Land fixating on the idea that the Russia investigation was a partisan “hoax” facilitated by the Obama administration’s “spying” on the Trump campaign.)

These are all things that it would be good for the public to know! The bad news, as the articles acknowledge to varying degrees, is that Mueller—according to his own statements and the writers, like Wired’s Garrett Graff, who have covered him extensively—is unlikely to answer any of them.

Mueller’s previous comments and his by-the-book history suggest that he will simply decline to consider questions that would require him to divulge information or opinions that were not already formally covered in the report. There probably won’t be any dramatic revelations of new information or climactic “Have you no shame?” denouncements of the president. The hearing, in other words, is one more chance to lose faith in Robert Mueller, cartoon resistance superhero—the figure who will singlehandedly restore sanity to the American system.

But the all-but-guaranteed lack of new revelations means that Democrats have the unusual advantage, in preparing their questions, of knowing exactly how their witness is likely to respond. The party’s legislators can essentially pre-write scripts in which they prompt Mueller—who despite years of Trump administration attacks, appears to still be considered a more credible individual than the president by the general public, and whose findings have not yet been aired in this kind of high-profile televised setting—to portray the president as a potential criminal who is extremely, spectacularly unfit for office. As Graff writes: “Use his own strength against him: Make him use his own words. Go ahead and phrase your question as the ‘gotcha’ moment you want, but then ask him to read the relevant quotation from the report rather than give his extemporaneous opinion.”

Within that framework, here are a few key points that seem like winners for the Dems.

The administration’s characterizations of the Mueller report’s findings—and of Mueller’s decisions about prosecutions—have been bogus. Trump, Attorney General William Barr, and various congressional Republicans have mischaracterized Mueller’s conclusions as a “no collusion, no obstruction” exoneration of the president. Using only the words he’s already published, Democrats can have Mueller convey that his report “does not exonerate” the president of having obstructed justice and in fact “found multiple acts by the President that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations”; that it was Trump’s new attorney general, not Mueller, who made the “prosecutorial judgement” not to indict the president for obstruction; and that (possibly because witnesses “provided information that was false or incomplete” and “deleted relevant communications”) he concluded only that the evidence “did not establish” a Trump-Russia conspiracy, not that one didn’t take place.

• Congress can hold Trump accountable. The Democrats who don’t want to open impeachment proceedings are frightened of doing so because opinion polls say the American public don’t currently support the move. (Or more precisely, Democrats do support it but independent voters don’t, which terrifies some Dems who are thinking about 2020.) Mueller, via circumspect phrases like “the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” seems to have implied in his report that he expected Congress might use the information he’d gathered to impeach Trump for obstruction. On Wednesday, Democrats can get him to acknowledge as much directly.

A ton of Trump’s advisers committed crimes—just, like, tons and tons of crimes. Pelosi’s memo is mostly anodyne, but one thing it notes, that few if any of the journalistic pieces did, is that Mueller’s work has already led directly to the conviction of five Trump advisers—among them his campaign chairman, deputy campaign manager, national security adviser, and personal lawyer—for crimes including tax fraud, campaign finance fraud, and perjury. Democrats thinking about the larger case against Trump’s fitness for office might prompt Mueller to note that while his investigation of the Russian conspiracy question was inconclusive, the act of poking around the individuals close to the president nonetheless uncovered a truly impressive array of corrupt, criminal behavior.

The House Democratic caucus’ strategy, such as it is, for dealing with the Trump administration seems to be to pull tentatively at a bunch of different strings while hoping that one of them becomes the thread that unravels Trump’s stubbornly stable 40 percent–ish approval rating. Whether they’re doing this to build momentum for impeachment or merely to damage the president’s reputation ahead of a 2020 voter referendum remains a divisive subject. But using Mueller, a professional prosecutor and registered Republican, to effectively rehash Trump’s documented misdeeds should be a step toward their goal, whatever that goal may be.