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What to look out for during Robert Mueller's testimony
04:38 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” Follow him on Twitter at @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

CNN  — 

The Justice Department sent a letter to former special counsel Robert Mueller warning him not to make news when he appears before the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees this week. It instructed him to keep his testimony “within the boundaries of your public report, because matters within the scope of your investigation were covered by executive privilege.”

In other words, Mueller’s big day on Capitol Hill might not be as dramatic as some are expecting. But millions of eyes will probably be glued to television and phone screens anyway, to hear Mueller answer questions about his report for the first time.

Although the special counsel’s report has been public for months now—becoming a best-seller—opponents of the President hope that when the country sees and hears Mueller summarize the findings, possibly giving a little more explanation as well, the case against Trump will grow clearer and stronger.

In a culture that thrives on endless streams of scrolling television chyrons and shallow tweets, not long-form narrative and books, Trump critics are hoping that Mueller himself will help Americans to understand what this is all about.

Having Americans hear Mueller say aloud that there was sufficient evidence to conclude the President obstructed justice could be much more potent than having reporters merely tell viewers the same thing. (“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” was the way the report put it.)

Mueller’s emphasizing before the cameras how extensive Russian efforts were to interfere in the election, with continued points of contact with the Trump campaign, would be more damning that the legalistic narrative in the report.

Maybe, just maybe, Mueller’s testimony would provide the “turning point” that many Democrats have been waiting for, which could push the House to start impeachment. Perhaps it will be the final straw that totally turns public opinion against the President and causes Republicans rethink their political support for the administration.

This is highly doubtful. In the short term, Mueller’s testimony probably won’t have much of a political impact.

With regards to impeachment, it likely won’t move the needle very far. Why? The leadership of both parties, who are well aware of the details in the report, have dug into their positions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi believes that impeachment is a bad political move for her party, would unnecessarily put the nation through more turmoil and even cause a backlash against Democrats.

Without her support, the impeachment process will never begin. Even more important: Republican leaders have expressed zero support for impeachment and have stood loyally behind the President on this matter. Other than Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, who has left the party, Republicans remain unmoved by the release of Mueller’s report except to call for investigating the investigators.

The structure of the hearings themselves is problematic. Mueller will only be testifying for a few hours. Members of the committees will have about five minutes to ask their questions. In contrast to the Watergate hearings in 1973 or the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987, Congress is not conducting its investigation as part of some broader, ongoing, and centralized inquiry into the administration. It will have to stand alone.

This doesn’t lend itself to helping the public put all the pieces of this scandal together in a coherent story. Against the clarity of President Trump’s “no collusion, no obstruction” mantra, Democrats don’t really stand a chance.

Instead they have a notoriously tight-lipped witness, who has warned that he won’t add much more than is in the report, and a high likelihood that the hearings will turn into a series of grandstanding statements from legislators seeking to impress constituents.

The odds of this are even greater because of the timing, which is everything in American politics.

Had Mueller testified in the weeks immediately following the release of the report, when the debate over impeachment was more vibrant, and when Republicans were feeling less certain about whether the President could withstand the storm, Mueller’s discussion of the contents of the report could have counteracted the narrative put forth by Attorney General William Barr.

But the report came out months ago. By now, the President and the attorney general have effectively sold the message with Republicans and the President’s base that the report exonerates the administration. Reporters have chewed through the findings many times and the public seems to have little appetite for impeachment hearings.

What’s more, the testimony comes right before Congress goes out for a lengthy summer recess and just as the presidential campaign kicks up. he new media will most likely move on to the next provocative statement to come from the President on some other matter. There will be a lot of fireworks surrounding the broadcast, but it may be hard to sustain much momentum once it is done–unless legislators are greeted with endless protest over it back in their districts.

So what is the value of Mueller’s testimony to Democrats if impeachment is pretty much off the table?

Besides adding to the historical record, always a worthwhile endeavor for future generations, the biggest impact might be on the 2020 election.

Democrats are slowly building their case for 2020. They are starting to hone in on the issues that will define the general election. One of those will be the corruption and abuse of power that has been a major part of the Trump presidency. The statements that Mueller makes—and the images of him making them—can become part of the collective electoral psyche going into the election.

His testimony could elevate the concerns and fears of suburban independent voters –who might vote Democratic, despite low unemployment and a booming stock market.

The testimony might further energize the Democratic base, which believes that the party should have moved to impeach the President but now sees the election as the only option left for preventing a two-term Trump presidency. Mueller’s testimony could also depress the enthusiasm of Republicans who are not part of Trump’s base, becoming part of the reason they potentially stay home when it comes time to vote.

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    If there is no long term electoral impact, Mueller’s testimony might just go down as one more high-stakes, dramatic, and shocking moment in a Trump term of many others—but like the others, one that fails to shake the rigid partisan status quo that thus far has allowed the President to survive a potentially devastating scandal.