Theatrics dominate at contentious Mueller report hearing

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent
John Dean is sworn in before a House Judiciary Committee hearing. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

WASHINGTON — What do you get when you cross the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, Medicare for All proposals and Twitter exchanges with MSNBC host Rachel Maddow?

Monday’s congressional hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, a frequently enthralling but also intermittently incoherent free-for-all titled “Lessons from the Mueller Report: Presidential Obstruction and Other Crimes.”

The key moments came from the committee’s Republicans sparring with John Dean, who as White House counsel provided key testimony in the Watergate proceedings. Now a frequent critic of President Trump on cable news and social media, Dean came back to Capitol Hill to give a kind of seminar on how the lessons of 1973 still hold in 2019.

“The last time I appeared before your committee was July 11, 1974, during the impeachment inquiry of Richard Nixon,” Dean said, taking care to note that he was not a “fact witness” when it came to Trump. “In many ways, the Mueller report is to President Trump what the so-called Watergate roadmap” was to Nixon, he said. “Special counselor Mueller has provided this committee with a road map,” he added.

His remarks echoed calls from those on the left who argue that the report offers plenty of evidence to impeach Trump.

But whatever lessons Dean hoped to impart were frequently disrupted by Republican defenders of Trump, who have treated Mueller’s report both as an exoneration — though it did not in fact exonerate Trump — and as an act of political ill will against the president (Mueller, a Republican, was appointed by Trump’s own Department of Justice).

Trump himself had telegraphed that strategy in a tweet earlier today. “Can’t believe they are bringing in John Dean, the disgraced Nixon White House Counsel who is a paid CNN contributor,” the president wrote in a message this afternoon. “No Collusion - No Obstruction! Democrats just want a do-over which they’ll never get!”

Republicans echoes Trump’s message as the hearing began. The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, criticized its chairman, Trump foe Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., for hosting a “sideshow” instead of focusing on the continuing threat of Russian electoral interference.

“We’re not bringing Russia front and center,” Collins charged. He then addressed Dean and the other witnesses, including former U.S. attorneys Barbara McQuade and Joyce White Vance, as well as Heritage Foundation Vice President John Malcolm, the sole pro-Trump witness.

“You’re wonderful on TV,” Collins said, growing animated. “I could catch your testimony on TV,” he added, seemingly speaking to the three anti-Trump witnesses in particular. Proceeding to read a Twitter exchange between Maddow, the MSNBC host, and McQuade, he wondered sarcastically, “Do you and Rachel Maddow have evidence of collusion that the special counsel didn’t have?”

The hearing proved good television, as Republicans repeatedly noted that Dean —who pled guilty to obstruction of justice in 1973 — was partly responsible for the event that caused many Americans to lose trust in the federal government.

“Mr. Dean is the godfather” Collins said, referencing the Nixon campaign and its illegal spying on the Democratic National Committee.

“Mr. Dean, how many American presidents have you accused of being Richard Nixon?” wondered Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., some time later, in reference to Dean’s 2004 book “Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush.” He accused Dean of running a “cottage industry” based on comparing presidents to Nixon.

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, meanwhile, seemingly decided to relitigate the infamous Watergate break-in that led to Nixon’s downfall. “Did you ever order or convey an order to break into the Democrat headquarters at the Watergate hotel?”

“No,” Dean answered. James Rosen, a conservative journalist, has accused Dean of ordering the break-in, though Dean has denied that charge. The question of who, ultimately, authorized the Watergate break-in remains in dispute.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a leader of the right-wing Freedom Caucus and one of the president’s most consistent supporters in Congress, strayed even further afield. He read from several Dean tweets critical of Trump, focusing on one in which Dean said Trump was “incapable of accomplishing anything.”

Jordan then recited several of Trump’s accomplishments, including those concerning economic growth and unemployment. Inexplicably, he focused on Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, though the Mueller report did not cover Trump’s policy in the Middle East.

Dean yielded no ground in that or any other exchange with the Republicans eager to take him on. That sometimes led to outbursts of frustration, as when Gaetz of Florida asked, apropos of nothing, “How do Democrats plan to pay for Medicare for All?”

The point seemed to be that Dean knew as little about Democratic health care proposals as he did about the substance of the case against Trump. Dean retorted by pointing out that even Nixon had a health care plan of his own (presumably unlike Trump, who had promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act). That led to one of several outbursts of laughter during the hearing.

That case appears in something of jeopardy, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has indicated no desire to move forward with impeachment. Pelosi’s stance has left Nadler and others in House leadership positions with the delicate task of having to heed her orders while satisfying the demands of a progressive base that wants nothing more than to expel Trump from office.

There were, during the raucous hearing, some moments of substance. Holding up a copy of the Mueller report, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, cited specific pages of the report that strongly suggested that Trump may have obstructed justice by instructing White House counsel Don McGahn to stop the Russia investigation by firing Mueller.

Joyce White Vance, the former U.S. attorney, offered her own assessment of that episode.

“This conduct to me seems to have all the elements prosecutors would need to have to successfully charge obstruction of justice,” she said.

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