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Jonathan Bernstein

House Democrats have finally landed a witness worth tuning in for about the Mueller report: Robert Mueller himself. He’ll appear on July 17.

This isn’t ideal, by any means. The best people to haul in front of hearing-room cameras would be the actual fact witnesses, who President Donald Trump has largely prevented from appearing. That’s what provided the gripping theater back in 1973, when the Senate Watergate Committee heard from both cooperating and stonewalling witnesses. But Mueller is better than nothing. For one thing, the hearings are certain to draw serious media attention, which at least gives Democrats a high-profile way to illustrate the report’s main findings – which are far more damning than Trump’s “no collusion, no obstruction” mantra suggests.

Because of the way information now spreads, the testimony could have a greater impact than the publication of the report itself. Even just reading the main conclusions out loud will help whatever audience tunes in or sees news reports about it have a better sense of the full weight of the findings.

And as Greg Sargent points out, Mueller – who investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 election – may be able to clarify some of the many remaining questions about what his probe turned up. Even if there are no bombshell revelations during the hearing, the House could wind up with new leads to follow in its own investigations.

Unfortunately, Democrats have already botched their negotiations with Mueller. He’ll only testify for one day, split between sessions of the Judiciary Committee and the Intelligence Committee. That’s not very much time, especially since we can anticipate that few Republicans will be asking substantive questions. (Expect them to mainly offer speeches about various insipid conspiracy theories. Some may not ask any questions at all, since they don’t want to hear truth-based answers.)

What the Democrats should do is eliminate the standard practice of giving each committee member five minutes for questions. Instead, they should designate a small number of questioners to pursue different topics, then lengthen the blocks of time allotted to each party (perhaps to half-hour stretches). That would give each questioner time to develop their points, instead of rushing through a random series of questions. It would also discourage lawmakers from trying to produce attention-grabbing sound bites to get themselves onto the news; instead, the questioners would have an incentive to use their time wisely, knowing they’ll already get plenty of publicity and can enhance their reputations by digging for real insights.

Whether they can break new ground or not, Democrats have an important story to tell about the Mueller report. They’re going to have a chance to tell it. Perhaps this time they can learn from their previous mistakes.

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Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

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