ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra.
Joining me tonight, Amna Nawaz, national correspondent for the PBS NewsHour; Bob Woodward, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and associate editor of The Washington Post; Nancy Cordes, chief congressional correspondent for CBS News; and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today and author of the bestseller The Matriarch.
Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller goes before two congressional committees next week to talk about the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 campaign. Mueller presided over the probe for almost two years and did not give a single interview or news conference until months after he submitted the report to Attorney General Bill Barr. House Democrats subpoenaed Mueller and have been prepping for this moment for quite some time. He is a reluctant witness, however, and said he will not say anything beyond what is in the report. Nancy, you’ve been on Capitol Hill talking to the lawmakers who will be holding these hearings. What is their game plan?
NANCY CORDES: Well, Democrats are doing something that they almost never do in advance of hearings, which is actually coordinating and preparing, because they know that this is a one-shot deal. They’re not going to be bringing Robert Mueller back to testify again anytime soon. They have very little time with him. And so instead of having lawmakers do what they normally do – which is you get your five minutes, you get your five minutes, and you ask whatever you want – they’re trying to come up with a game plan, and they’re running through that game plan with the – with the – with the knowledge that they’re unlikely to uncover any new bombshells. He’s made it very clear he’s not really going to go beyond what he has said in the past. So what they’re really trying to do here is create a picture for the public of what they view as a pattern of obstruction of justice as they try to build their case that the president obstructed justice, focusing primarily on his attempts to interfere with the investigation or shut the investigation down. So that’s where their questions are going to be focused, and they’re keeping in mind, Bob, that, as they put it, Mueller is the type of person who will never use 10 words when one word will do, and you probably know that from interviewing him. So they’re prepared for him to just answer a flat-out yes or no to a lot of their questions.
BOB WOODWARD: Yes, but does – but does this make any sense? Because in the report Mueller wrote the following sentence: This report does not conclude that the president committed a crime. If you’re a defense lawyer and you get an FBI report or a grand jury report for your client and it said it does not conclude your client committed a crime, it’s over. And legally, it’s over, at least given the data we have now. And to re-plow that is, you know, the – I remember lots of hearings over the last 45 years and people, oh, this is going to be a great hearing, and then after the first half-hour even the reporters are leaving. (Laughter.)
SUSAN PAGE: You know, Democrats have, I think, in some ways maybe an unrealistic hope for what this hearing can achieve, which is even if Mueller won’t go beyond what he put in the report that somehow the picture of him sitting there and describing it or speaking will be persuasive and incite public sentiment against the president and maybe in favor of impeachment. It just seems like that is a pretty high bar for a – for a somebody – a witness testifying who does not want to do that.
MS. CORDES: Right, and beyond which, you know, polling shows that Robert Mueller and his report are not really top of mind for voters right now, so it’s not something that, you know, voters have been clamoring to hear more about. I do think that, you know – there’s some risk to this strategy, and if it ends up being a dud of a hearing it is risky for Democrats, and that’s obviously what Republicans are banking on. Democrats, their philosophy is, when you talk to them, that people didn’t read the report, but when you see this honest broker, you know, someone like Robert Mueller sitting there talking about potential acts of obstruction of justice, even if he doesn’t say anything new it still helps them to paint this picture of the president who – as someone who has flagrantly violated norms and laws. And that’s – I think that that’s their best hope for what they can get out of this.
MR. COSTA: But as much as the Democrats want him to come across as a compelling, honest broker of information, Republicans will also have a chance to ask questions. Does Mr. Mueller risk getting politicized by being there, just by having to deal with the back and forth with Republican questions and Democratic questions?
AMNA NAWAZ: Probably a fear of his, which is why he is considered a reluctant witness. He made clear he’s not going to go beyond what was in those 400-plus pages. To Nancy’s point, you know, the line has always been they want this to be the movie version of the book. I think if your star of the movie is Bob Mueller you’re probably hoping for a little bit too much. But that said, you know, I’ve come across enough people – this is anecdotal – who care and want to see something in the report. And I think for those people who feel like they need to be convinced that there’s something there and they’re just grabbing for whatever they can, Democrats are hoping that by having this man deliver the words, by having that one social media viral clip in which he says something in person that doesn’t quite carry over in text, it will help them to make a case eventually, or at least make people decide what they believe once and for all.
MR. WOODWARD: A case for what, though? See that’s –
MR. COSTA: Well, what about a case for – on volume one it’s all about Russian interference. So there’s a big emphasis among Democrats on the obstruction volume – about alleged obstruction. Mueller could be compelling, not so much maybe on obstruction, but he could make a compelling analysis of Russian interference.
MR. WOODWARD: And the Republicans say – and let’s say you concluded there was no coordination? Yes, I did. So this was all going on outside the Trump campaign and the Trump organization. I mean, that doesn’t lead anywhere. It’s – so many of these things are sideshows, I think. And –
MR. COSTA: But didn’t having John Dean testify help the Watergate cause for Democrats?
MR. WOODWARD: It did. And he said, I was in all these meetings, and Nixon asked for all the money to pay blackmail. And then the hearings were over, and people said, well, Dean says this, Nixon denies it. And it was only the tapes that settled the issue in Dean’s favor. And the absence – I mean, the Nixon tapes raised the bar so high on what the evidentiary expectation is in these kind of inquiries, I think that it – unless you have tapes, unless you can – I mean, this is why Clinton got off. This is, in part, why Reagan got off in Iran-Contra. And I keep – every time I interview someone I ask: Do you have tapes? And I’m waiting. And I have not got a yes. But it is the world of surveillance. It is the culture of surveillance. So maybe there’s something out there. So keep asking.
MS. NAWAZ: You know, on the political messaging front, though, the Republicans have been so on point when it comes to the Mueller report. It’s just no collusion, no obstruction, no collusion, no obstruction.
MR. WOODWARD: Case closed.
MS. NAWAZ: Case closed, exactly. What this could offer Democrats is if there’s a moment in which Mueller is asked something as specific as, did you find substantial evidence that the president acted to obstruct the investigation, and he says yes, that you can see making its way into campaign ads, into something that’s being touted again and again. It may offer them something that could help them to coalesce their message in a way that it hasn’t yet.
MS. PAGE: But there are these other investigations going on on Capitol Hill that may have more promise for discovering things that we don’t know yet, and that are compelling to people.
MR. WOODWARD: Like taxes, like money.
MS. PAGE: Yeah. Like taxes.
MR. COSTA: Though, the president – we saw the Southern District of New York this week did not – it released some material on President Trump talking about hush money payments, but no new indictments.
MS. PAGE: Right. And no – and no big political effect. You know, I think it wasn’t surprising to people that the president’s implicated in these hush money payments.
MS. CORDES: And I think Democrats – you know, many of them would like to pursue an impeachment inquiry down the road, but they’re really only going to be willing to do that if public opinion shifts more in their favor. Otherwise, there’s no point. And there are very few incidents, I think, that could happen along the way that would really shift that public opinion. And so they’re hoping that Robert Mueller’s appearance might be one of them. But if it isn’t, then it’ll be a lot like the Mueller report, which also didn’t really shift public opinion in their direction.
MR. WOODWARD: And when he answers your very good question he’ll say, yes, as I said in my report. (Laughter.) And then it gets the big yawn.
MR. COSTA: We’ll hear a lot of that. We’ll hear a lot of that – as I said in my report, as I wrote in my report.
That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts or watch it on our Washington Week website. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz. I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. And we’ll see you next time.