When Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who leads the House Judiciary Committee, first planned hearings on the Russia investigation, this week wasn’t what he had in mind.
He wanted to hear directly from former White House counsel Donald McGahn, who could provide eyewitness accounts of how President Trump repeatedly tried to end or limit the probe.
Yet when Nadler’s panel meets Monday, McGahn won’t be at the witness table. Instead it will feature John Dean, who was White House counsel under President Nixon and testified for the prosecution during the Watergate scandal that forced Nixon from office. Dean later went to jail for his role in the coverup.
On Tuesday, House Democrats plan to authorize legal action against McGahn for refusing to testify. Atty. Gen. William Barr, who has resisted providing lawmakers with an unredacted copy of the final report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, may face the same step.
The back-to-back proceedings highlight how Democrats have struggled to gain traction against Trump since Mueller released his final report in April. Unable to convince key figures to testify, they’ve turned to commentators like Dean and former federal prosecutors, who will also appear Monday.
“This witness lineup would be perfect for a prime time cable news show. But this isn’t cable news,” said Elliott Williams, a former Justice Department official and lawyer for the Senate Judiciary Committee. “And we’re past that point. We need to hear, on the record, from the folks who wrote the report.”
Democrats say Dean and others will provide a historical and legal perspective that will help them build a public case against the president.
“We've been doing our due diligence,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a member of the panel. “These are all steps that are logical. They are appropriate. They are methodical.”
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Republican on the panel, wrote to Nadler, accusing him of turning the hearings “into a mock-impeachment inquiry rather than a legitimate exercise in congressional oversight.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has fended off calls by members of her caucus to start impeachment proceedings. But Democrats have been mired in a grinding campaign to force recalcitrant Trump administration officials to comply with congressional subpoenas.
“The administration is continuing to obstruct justice,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a committee member. “If they continue to disregard our subpoenas, all we can do is hold them in contempt and see what happens with the courts.”
It’s unlikely that Tuesday’s votes, part of what’s known as the civil contempt process, will cause McGahn or Barr to suddenly hand over documents, but they will pave the way for lawsuits that Democrats hope will result in court orders forcing them to cooperate.
“We are going the civil enforcement route because we believe the American people deserve answers and need to know what this president and administration are hiding,” said a senior Democratic aide who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
While the House Judiciary Committee is focused on whether Trump tried to obstruct justice, a parallel effort examining Russia’s interference is underway in the House Intelligence Committee. Two former FBI officials are scheduled to testify on Wednesday.
“Our committee’s goal will be to explain to the American people the serious counterintelligence concerns raised by the Mueller report, examine the depth and breadth of the unethical and unpatriotic conduct it describes, and produce prescriptive remedies to ensure that this never happens again,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the chairman, said in a statement.
The intelligence committee will also hold a hearing Thursday to examine technology that can be used to spread disinformation, like “deep fakes,” which are doctored videos that appear authentic.
Analysts fear the technology could be used in the 2020 presidential campaign, making it even more vulnerable to foreign interference.
Schiff and Nadler both want Mueller to testify to their committees, but it’s unclear if he will. In brief public comments at the Justice Department last month, Mueller made clear he did not want to appear on Capitol Hill, suggesting he would provide no details beyond what he disclosed in his 448-page final report.
“The report is my testimony,” he said at the time.
Democrats on the Judiciary committee will need to decide whether to subpoena Mueller, a step they’ve so far been unwilling to take.
“I think everyone’s preference is that he come voluntarily, but if he declines to do that, then I think it’s absolutely critical that we issue a subpoena to compel his attendance,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.).
Mueller has proved a reluctant ally in other ways. In his final report, he declined to say whether Trump obstructed justice, noting that a sitting president cannot be indicted while in office.
Instead he detailed multiple steps that Trump took to try to short circuit the investigation, leaving Congress to debate what it means and what should be done about it.
Democrats would like to have hearings that become must-see television, much like when Dean testified to the Senate Watergate Committee in 1973.
They achieved that in March when they brought Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. During a daylong hearing, Cohen described Trump as a racist, a liar and a cheat and suggested he had committed fraud in his business dealings.
But another blockbuster has been elusive. So Democrats are planning a sort of Constitution 101 class in hopes of explaining to the public why Trump’s actions were wrong.
“We'll bring in people who are very experienced in matters of prosecution, criminal prosecution, people who are very experienced in matters of impeachment, and people who can help explain to the American people exactly what is at stake and how we uphold our constitution and our democracy,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.).
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said the hearings will “educate Republicans who haven’t read the report, and educate the president, who only seems to get his information from TV.”