WASHINGTON — House Democrats, frustrated by President Trump’s efforts to stonewall their investigations and eager to stoke public anger about the president’s behavior, are pinning their diminishing hopes on Robert S. Mueller III yet again.
They had a plan: dramatize the special counsel’s damning but dense report on national television in their committees, animating his prose with vivid testimony from witnesses who would discuss Mr. Mueller’s findings on Russia’s election interference and Mr. Trump’s possible obstruction of justice.
But so far Mr. Trump and his allies have successfully parried every one of their moves. Donald F. McGahn II, the former White House counsel and a central player in the story, is expected to either flout a subpoena to testify before the House Judiciary Committee next Tuesday or refuse to answer questions. The White House has claimed executive privilege over the unredacted Mueller report and all the evidence underlying its 448 pages, and administration officials refuse to satisfy virtually any other request — setting up months, possibly years, of legal wrangling.
Mr. Mueller, who was invited to testify by the chairmen of the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees a month ago, has not agreed to do so.
His absence has left a disappointed House majority with little option but to stage political theatrics like Thursday’s 12-hour reading of the entire unredacted Mueller report in a hideaway Capitol committee room before a few reporters, a guest appearance by the liberal activist actor John Cusack and the unblinking eye of a C-Span camera.
“We cannot count on anyone but Mueller to tell us what he was thinking, and it should not be filtered through anyone else — seeing is believing, hearing is believing,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, adding that a “sterile report” was no substitute for either Mr. Mueller or Mr. McGahn.
Representative Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat who sits on the Judiciary Committee, added, “If the people who are referenced in the Mueller report won’t testify, then we need to hear from the author of the report.”
Democrats involved in the investigations insist that they still have options. They can hold hearings with empty chairs, summon friendly witnesses and mount new and novel challenges against the administration on health care and other issues. On myriad looming legal fights, they are confident they will ultimately prevail in court — and there is always the possibility that a high-impact witness will be willing to buck Mr. Trump and emerge John Dean-like and unexpectedly.
But those options lack the possible impact of Mr. Mueller, the most recognizable figure behind the investigation.
Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said Mr. Mueller was the only person who could clear up certain ambiguities about the report. Only Mr. Mueller, he said, could tell the American people “if he agrees with the fact that if he were not president, he would have been indicted” for the instances of obstruction identified in the report.
But talking with reporters at the Capitol on Thursday, Mr. Nadler conceded that the White House strategy had thus far succeeded in tamping down energy around the Mueller report and investigations. However, he added, “the temperature can rise very quickly when the first subpoena is adjudged in our favor, and we start getting witnesses.”
Over the past week, aides with the House Judiciary Committee have been negotiating with aides to Mr. Mueller to get the special counsel, who remains an employee of the Justice Department, to testify. Those talks grind on over the format and the length of his appearance, according to two people close to the deliberations.
It is not clear if he would appear alone or with key aides who helped draft the report, they said. Some committee Democrats have expressed the opinion that two top Mueller aides, Aaron M. Zebley and Andrew Weissmann, would feel less constrained about criticizing the president than Mr. Mueller.
Mr. Schiff’s staff has also been talking to Mr. Mueller’s office, and the congressman expressed optimism that a deal could be struck. “I think we’ll get there,” he said.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for the special counsel, declined to comment.
In the past, there has been jockeying between Mr. Nadler’s staff and aides to Mr. Schiff — but they are in agreement on sequencing. If Mr. Mueller agrees to appear, he would testify in an open session before the Judiciary Committee first, then appear before Mr. Schiff’s committee, most likely in public and closed-door sessions, Mr. Nadler said.
Mr. Trump has given conflicting answers over his feelings about Mr. Mueller’s testimony, after labeling his investigation a “witch hunt” in the months leading up to investigators’ conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to charge Mr. Trump, his campaign or his supporters with conspiring with the Kremlin.
Attorney General William P. Barr, whose defiance of a subpoena to hand over the full Mueller report and evidence has elicited threats of a contempt citation, denied this week that he was interfering in potential testimony from Mr. Mueller.
“It’s Bob’s call whether he wants to testify,” said on Wednesday during an interview with The Wall Street Journal while flying to El Salvador.
Democrats’ big fear — expressed during interviews with two dozen lawmakers over the past week — is that public interest in the Mueller report is ebbing. Any appearance by Mr. Mueller, however noncommittal or boring it turns out to be, is one of the only means to snap the issue of Mr. Trump’s actions back to center stage, they said, along with testimony from someone like Mr. McGahn.
Republicans say even that is wishful thinking. Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina and a close ally of Mr. Trump, said Democrats were living in a fantasyland to think that there were still minds to be changed about Mr. Trump or that Mr. Mueller, put under cross-examination by Republicans, would be able to do it.
“The fact that the Democrats are reading the Mueller report in the Rules Room and the only people who are covering it are Hill reporters would indicate that there is a disconnect between Washington, D.C., and Main Street America,” he said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, eager to find any new leverage to fight back against the White House, suggested on Thursday that House Democrats could always open an impeachment inquiry to obtain documents and testimony from stonewalling Trump administration officials — a sharp response to the White House’s blanket claim that House requests served no “legitimate” legislative purpose.
“The courts would respect it if you said we need this information to carry out our oversight responsibilities — and among them is impeachment,” Ms. Pelosi said during her weekly news conference at the Capitol.
“It doesn’t mean you’re going on an impeachment path, but it means if you had the information you might,” Ms. Pelosi said. “It’s about impeachment as a purpose.”
Her threat was the first time Ms. Pelosi publicly suggested using impeachment as an information-gathering tool.
But many of the speaker’s allies in the House favor using impeachment as a pry bar for compliance — in the belief that formally convening an impeachment inquiry would effectively turn the House into a grand jury. That would compel the administration to be more cooperative.
Democrats were confronting fresh resistance on Thursday, as well. Mr. Schiff said that the Justice Department had failed to meet a subpoena deadline for intelligence and counterintelligence information related to the special counsel investigation. He said he would “reluctantly” scheduled a vote next week on an unspecified “enforcement action” against the Justice Department if it did not reconsider.
“It is certainly my sense that this is a top-down instruction from the president to stonewall every congressional request no matter how reasonable,” he said.
A day earlier, the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, sent Mr. Nadler a letter rejecting the committee’s broad request for documents from administration aides and demanding that he narrow his inquiry.
“Congressional investigations are intended to obtain information to aid in evaluating potential legislation, not to harass political opponents or to pursue an unauthorized ‘do-over’” of the Mueller report, wrote Mr. Cipollone, who stopped short of asserting executive privilege.
The problem for Democrats is that they have little actual recourse against the executive branch’s refusal to comply with requests, even under subpoena. And Ms. Pelosi on Thursday stopped short of endorsing an approach that could lead to the jailing of or the imposing of fines on recalcitrant witnesses.
The Judiciary Committee has authorized other yet-unused subpoenas for potential public witnesses like Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director; Annie Donaldson, Mr. McGahn’s chief of staff; and Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff.
But in all likelihood, the outcome would be the same: stonewall.
In a response to Mr. Cipollone on Thursday, Mr. Nadler wrote that the committee “has the right — indeed the duty under the Constitution — to investigate these and other related circumstances.”
He said that the committee remained willing to narrow its requests to reach accommodations with the administration, but took a dig at the White House lawyer: “Your failure to comprehend the gravity of the special counsel’s findings is astounding and dangerous.”
[Read Mr. Nadler’s letter.]
As Democrats wait impatiently for Mr. Mueller, Ms. Pelosi is trying to strike a balance between the full-blown impeachment process and the appearance that she is not doing enough to counter Mr. Trump.
“Some of our folks are a little bit: ‘Why aren’t we impeaching the president? Why aren’t we impeaching him?’” she said during a meeting of her caucus on Wednesday, according to a Democratic official in the room. “They get a little down, ‘Why aren’t we impeaching the president?’”
“But the point is that we need to show them that we are doing all of these other things that they care about so much,” like health care legislation, she said.