Battle lines drawn for Mueller testimony

The sudden announcement that special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE will testify publicly before Congress is setting the stage for an explosive mid-July on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers are eager to grill Mueller for hours during back-to-back House hearings on July 17 about the findings of his 22-month investigation into Russia’s election interference in 2016 and potential obstruction by President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Trump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' MORE.

ADVERTISEMENT

Democrats want to amplify the contents of Mueller’s 448-page report, which paints a damning picture of Trump’s efforts to gain control of and thwart the probe into his campaign’s contacts with Russia.

Both parties are already drawing their battle lines and laying the groundwork for the contentious hearings.

Democrats are furious at what they say was an effort by Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrDemocratic lawmaker calls asylum, refugee programs 'crown jewel' of immigration system Trump says he won't watch Mueller testimony Cummings asks prosecutors about decision not to charge Trump in hush money probe MORE to misrepresent Mueller’s findings, and they see the hearing as an opportunity to set the record straight and highlight details from a report that most voters have not read.

“I think that given the nature of what he has to say, given the nature of what’s in the report, he will be a very compelling witness,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerTrump knocks Mueller after deal struck for him to testify House Democrats request briefing on Epstein, Acosta Nadler apologized after repeatedly calling Hope Hicks 'Ms. Lewandowski' at hearing MORE (D-N.Y.) told reporters Wednesday.

Republicans, who have generally not been opposed to Mueller testifying, assert that the Russia report vindicates the president of allegations of “collusion” with Moscow. And they argue that Democrats are attempting to relitigate Mueller’s investigation in order to score political points against the president heading into 2020.

Mueller's investigation did not find sufficient evidence to charge members or associates of the Trump campaign with conspiring with the Kremlin to meddle in the election. 

“The same committee that is trying to drag Mueller in is the committee that has jurisdiction over the border, and we have a crisis at the border and they’re focused on impeaching the president,” said House Minority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseThe Memo: Fears of violence grow amid Trump race storm Democrats call for increased security after 'send her back' chants Democratic strategist on Trump tweets: 'He's feeding this fear and hate' MORE (R-La.), referring to the Judiciary panel. “That’s a dereliction of their duty.”

Nadler and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffCourt filings show Trump, Cohen contacts amid hush money payments House passes annual intelligence bill Judge finds Stone violated gag order, blocks him from using social media MORE (D-Calif.) announced late Tuesday that Mueller had agreed to testify before their committees after they issued subpoenas to compel his appearance.

The two panels had been negotiating unsuccessfully for his voluntary appearance for several weeks; Mueller laid out his resistance to public testimony during a brief 10-minute statement from the Justice Department last month.

Mueller’s testimony could have wide-reaching implications for the White House. It comes at a time when an increasing number of Democrats are supportive of opening an impeachment inquiry into Trump, and several impeachment backers said Wednesday they hope his public remarks next month will galvanize public support for such an inquiry.

Generally, Trump has expressed ambivalence to Mueller’s testimony but indicated in a tweet last month he was opposed to it.

Trump engaged in a familiar attack on Mueller’s investigation during an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, calling it a “phony witch hunt” and claiming the Russia report showed there was “no obstruction” and “no collusion.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice in the probe, saying he was precluded from doing so by a Justice Department opinion that says a sitting president cannot be indicted. Barr ultimately determined the evidence in Mueller’s report to be insufficient to accuse Trump of criminal wrongdoing.

While there has been speculation the White House could attempt to block Mueller from testifying, Trump’s personal attorney Jay SekulowJay Alan SekulowCourt filings show Trump, Cohen contacts amid hush money payments NY governor signs bill allowing Congress to obtain Trump's state tax returns Political victory for Democrats in Trump tax return lawsuit hinges on timing MORE told CNN on Wednesday that there “are no legal moves being made here.”

Mueller’s appearance on Capitol Hill will be met with wall-to-wall media coverage, and cable networks are likely to carry the testimony live as Democrats seek to shine a spotlight on Trump’s actions that Mueller examined as potentially obstructive.

But Mueller’s pledge not to speak beyond what is contained in his report could ultimately leave Democrats unsatisfied when they question him at length.

One question Democrats are certain to ask: Would you have charged Trump with obstruction were he not the president?

It’s an inquiry that those who know Mueller say he is unlikely to answer.

“The reality is, people may be frustrated with him that he is so circumspect,” said Glenn Kirschner, a legal analyst and former federal prosecutor who worked with Mueller.

As special counsel, Mueller remained painstakingly quiet throughout the duration of his investigation. But he is now slated to testify in back-to-back hearings before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees.

That appearance will be followed by a closed-door interview with Mueller’s staff, where the discussion will likely delve into sensitive information from Mueller’s probe.

Judiciary members are likely to focus more on the obstruction inquiry, while Intelligence lawmakers say they are most interested in learning about the national security implications of the dozens of contacts between the Trump campaign and Kremlin-linked figures.

“One of the biggest questions is, from a counterintelligence standpoint: What were the relationships? What were the ties that should cause us to be concerned about certain Trump administration officials?” said Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Judge upholds Trump expansion of non-ObamaCare plans | Williamson says she believes in vaccines | House committee to hold oversight hearing on Juul History in the House: Congress weathers unprecedented week Democrat grills DHS chief over viral image of drowned migrant and child MORE (D-Ill.). “And quite frankly, I think the biggest question — or one of them — is going to be how do you prevent this from happening again?”

Democrats say that it won’t necessarily strike a blow if Mueller does not go beyond what is contained in his report, arguing that his public testimony will do plenty to inform the public of its contents.

“So, I’m 99 percent certain that Mueller is not going to utter a word that is different from the report,” Rep. Jim HimesJames (Jim) Andres HimesThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump creates new firestorm with 'go back' remarks Foreign-born lawmaker: Trump's not going to tell me to 'go back to my country' Battle lines drawn for Mueller testimony MORE (D-Conn.), a member of the Intelligence panel, said Tuesday. “But since I think 99 out of 100 Americans haven’t read the report, I think there’s value in sort of him talking about what he wrote.”

Mueller is certain to avoid questions that could disclose grand jury material — which is subject to federal secrecy rules — or compromise ongoing investigations, a dozen of which the special counsel handed off to prosecutors in other districts. The Russia report has been redacted to conceal these details, as well as classified information and details on uncharged third parties.

Some lawmakers were more frank in insisting that Mueller must answer their questions, noting he has a legal obligation to appear under the subpoena.

“I respect him more than anyone can imagine, but it’s really not his call to decide,” said Rep. Mike QuigleyMichael (Mike) Bruce QuigleyFunding a strong defense of our nation's democratic process can't wait The Hill's Morning Report - Trump touts handshake with Kim, tariff freeze with Xi Repeat of border aid battle expected with Homeland Security bill MORE (D-Ill.), a member of the Intelligence Committee.

“He’s under subpoena, he has to answer the questions. If we’ve learned anything about the special counsel, it’s he bends over backwards to follow the rules,” Quigley said.

Juliegrace Brufke contributed.

Updated on Thursday at 11:39 a.m.