For those of you desperate for Robert Mueller to finally open America’s eyes about Donald Trump doing wrong in the Russia report, you might find yourself disappointed again. Polls have shown that around ten percent of Americans have actually read the report as they are more apt to watch it on television. Sadly, Mueller isn’t the most compelling television personality, so many may wind up tuning out rather than hear the truth revealed.
Democrats want incriminating, hidden-till-now details about Donald Trump and Russia. Republicans want Robert Mueller to concede it was all a waste of time and money, if not an outright hoax.
Neither side is likely to get just what it wants Wednesday, but the former special counsel’s first open testimony on his investigation has Washington and the rest of the political world in a high state of anticipation just the same.
What To Expect
Some things to look for when Mueller appears before the House intelligence and judiciary committees to answer questions about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible cooperation with the Trump campaign.
Much of Mueller’s report focuses on the question of whether Trump obstructed justice, and Democrats on the Judiciary Committee say that’s where their attention will be, too. And for good reason: His report examines in blow-by-blow detail nearly a dozen episodes in which the new president sought to control the Russia probe, narrow its scope or even have investigators fired.
Democrats say they expect to draw Mueller out in several of these areas. They include his demands that then-White House Counsel Don McGahn press for Mueller’s firing and his push to have former Attorney General Jeff Sessions limit the investigation to future election interference rather than past conduct.
The afternoon session before the intelligence committee is likely to dwell more on Mueller’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to sway the outcome. Mueller found insufficient evidence of a criminal conspiracy there, but did leave open the question of whether Trump illegally stymied the investigation.
MUELLER THE MARINE
Expecting Mueller to stray outside his report and drop scintillating details you’ve never heard before? Well, don’t.
Mueller, an ex-Marine with a famously taciturn style, never relished his congressional appearances in his 12 years as FBI director — and this will be no exception.
He cautioned lawmakers in May that he would not go beyond the pages of his report if called upon to testify. The Justice Department expects him to fulfill that commitment and to also steer clear of discussing the redacted portions of the report or the behavior of people who were investigated but not charged.
That means he’s unlikely to answer certain critical questions, including whether he would have recommended indicting Trump himself if Trump had not been president of the United States. That question matters since Mueller cited Justice Department legal opinions that say a sitting president cannot be charged in explaining his decision to not reach a conclusion on whether Trump had broken the law.
Mueller’s not one for hypotheticals, though, so it’s fair to assume he won’t engage Democrats on that one.
THE “SNITTY” LETTER
Mueller will almost certainly be pressed about tensions with Attorney General William Barr over the way his report was handled and how the Justice Department communicated its findings to the public, including the attorney general’s decision to exonerate the president even when the special counsel pointedly did not do so.
Mueller complained privately to Barr in March that the attorney general’s four-page letter summarizing the main findings of his report “did not fully capture the context, nature and substance of this office’s work and conclusions.” Barr, in turn, has called Mueller’s note “a bit snitty.”
Mueller has made clear he didn’t think it was appropriate to make a determination one way or the other about whether the president had committed a crime. He has rejected Barr’s assessment that the evidence couldn’t satisfy an obstruction of justice allegation, noting both in his report — and, again, in a public statement from the Justice Department podium — that if he had confidence the president had not committed a crime, he would have said so.
Barr had no such hesitation and has said Mueller shouldn’t have started investigating the president if he wasn’t prepared to reach a conclusion.
Mueller probably doesn’t want to extend a public war of words with Barr, a longtime friend and his former boss. But he’ll very likely be asked about the dispute, and he may have a hard time getting around it.
Republicans aren’t likely to directly attack Mueller himself. The former special counsel is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who steered the FBI through the Sept. 11 attacks and was appointed by a Republican president to run the storied law enforcement agency.
But that doesn’t mean they won’t have areas to mine.
They’re likely to seize on the origins of the investigation and press Mueller on the extent to which the FBI, in the early weeks and months of its Russia probe, relied on information from a dossier of anti-Trump research paid for by Democrats. The Justice Department has acknowledged that the dossier helped form the basis of a secret surveillance warrant it obtained to monitor the communications of a Trump campaign aide, though the investigation had actually begun months earlier and was based on entirely separate allegations.
Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, foreshadowed that line of attack Monday with a tweet that said: “We have to do more than just question Mueller. We have to expose his biased investigation.”
IMPEACHMENT SUPPORTERS WILL BE WATCHING
More than 85 House Democrats — around a third of the caucus — have declared their support for opening an impeachment inquiry, and those who are pushing impeachment are hoping there will be a flood of additional Democrats who side with them after Mueller’s hearing.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she doesn’t favor starting an impeachment process, for now, and would need a public groundswell to change her mind.
The House is scheduled to head out on a five-week recess next week, and reaction from constituents back home after the Mueller hearing will be crucial as Democrats decide how to proceed with their investigations of the president.
Department Of Justice Tries To Muzzle Mueller Further
Former special counsel Robert Mueller has requested that his longtime associate, Aaron Zebley, appear alongside him as he testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.
Zebley, Mueller’s former chief of staff and his top aide on the Russia investigation, would be an unexpected addition, the issue arising less than 24 hours before the hearing begins. The person requested anonymity to freely discuss the talks.
Democrats hadn’t yet announced whether they would agree to the request, and Republicans are livid about it. Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the Judiciary panel’s top Republican, called the move an “apparent stunt” by Democrats. He said it “shows the lengths Democrats will go to protect a one-sided narrative from a thorough examination by committee Republicans.”
Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, another member of the committee, tweeted: “You don’t get to change the rules right before kickoff.”
It’s unclear if Mueller has made a similar request to the House intelligence committee, which will ask questions of him in a second hearing on Wednesday. The sessions will review Mueller’s 448-page report released in April.
The intelligence panel had hoped to question Zebley and another member of Mueller’s Russia team, James Quarles, behind closed doors in a separate classified setting. Negotiations on that meeting are ongoing.
Zebley has not been authorized by the Justice Department to appear at the open hearing, a separate person familiar with the matter said. That person also requested anonymity to discuss the negotiations. Attorney General William Barr has made it clear he does not want Mueller’s deputies to appear in a closed session, either.
The possible change in lineup comes as the Justice Department is asking Mueller not to stray beyond his report on Russian election interference when he testifies to Congress on Wednesday.
In a letter sent Monday to Mueller, Associate Deputy Attorney General Bradley Weinsheimer said he should not speak about redacted material from his report — including material pertaining to pending criminal prosecutions, “uncharged third-parties” and “executive privilege,” such as “presidential communications privileges.”
The letter is entirely in line with what Mueller has already said — that he doesn’t intend to speak beyond his report’s findings during Wednesday’s hearings before the House Judiciary and intelligence committees. But it gives Mueller a formal directive to point to if he faces questions he does not want to answer.
“The report is my testimony,” Mueller said in a televised statement in May. “I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”
Still, Democrats are preparing questions to highlight the report’s most damning details. Judiciary panel Democrats planned to practice with a mock hearing behind closed doors Tuesday.
Barr has said congressional Democrats were trying to create a “public spectacle” by subpoenaing Mueller to testify and has offered to give Mueller an out, saying earlier this month that he and the Justice Department would support Mueller if he decided he didn’t want to “subject himself” to the congressional appearances. Barr has also said he’d block any attempts to force members of Mueller’s team to testify before Congress.
While Mueller’s 448-page report did not find sufficient evidence to establish charges of criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to swing the election, it said Trump could not be cleared of trying to obstruct the investigation.
The nation has heard the special counsel speak only once — for nine minutes in May — since his appointment in May 2017.
Mueller’s testimony will include an opening statement on Wednesday, but his spokesman said it would be similar in substance to his statement from late May at the Justice Department’s podium.
The Justice Department’s letter to Mueller was in response to a request from Mueller for information about limitations or potential privilege issues. Mueller’s spokesman did not immediately provide a copy of the letter the former special counsel had sent to the Justice Department earlier this month.