Mueller testimony could be frustrating for both parties

Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump calls for probe of Obama book deal Democrats express private disappointment with Mueller testimony Kellyanne Conway: 'I'd like to know' if Mueller read his own report MORE’s testimony before Congress on Wednesday threatens to disappoint and even frustrate lawmakers of both parties, who’ve been anxiously waiting to hear the former special counsel elucidate his two-year investigation into Russia’s election interference and alleged obstruction of justice by President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren unveils Native American policy plan Live-action 'Mulan' star spurs calls for boycott with support of Hong Kong police Don't let other countries unfairly tax America's most innovative companies MORE. 

Democrats want Mueller to breathe life into his 448-page report and demonstrate to the American public that Trump is guilty of obstructing his investigation — a verdict Mueller’s team purposely avoided in issuing its findings. Republicans will try to throw Mueller off his game, vowing to focus their questions on whether it was even proper to launch the investigation in the first place. 

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But Mueller, the former FBI director who has testified nearly 90 times on Capitol Hill, has no desire to become a pawn in one of the biggest political stories in American history. For decades, the decorated Vietnam War veteran has enjoyed a stellar reputation in Washington, and he appears intent on preserving his long-hewn standing as an independent, nothing-but-the-facts prosecutor.

Anyone looking for a sequel to former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyBarr predicts progressive prosecutors will lead to 'more crime, more victims' James Comey shows our criminal justice system works as intended Trump says he's 'very strongly' considering commuting Rod Blagojevich's sentence MORE’s testimony after he was fired by Trump in 2017 is likely to be disappointed.

Now 74, Mueller has warned lawmakers he won’t go beyond the four corners of his eponymous, heavily annotated report. “The report is my testimony,” he said in May. 

What some Democrats fear is that he’ll simply read passages from that massive document during back-to-back appearances before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees on Wednesday, when the television networks — and all eyes in Washington — will be trained on one of the most momentous testimonies in decades.

“We will likely be disappointed,” said one House Democratic lawmaker. “I doubt there will be a smoking gun.”

Other Democrats who will have a chance to question Mueller have already begun to temper expectations. Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsTrump takes post-Mueller victory lap Trump attorney: 'Case is closed' after Mueller testimony Mueller agrees lies by Trump officials impeded his investigation MORE (D-Fla.), a member of both committees, said she would be content “if we leave that day with just the American people hearing Mueller’s voice, hearing in his own words some of the critical parts of the report, why he felt so strongly that the investigation does not exonerate the president.” 

But the pair of powerful Democrats who will be leading those Mueller hearings — Judiciary Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerHouse Democrats urge Trump to end deportations of Iraqis after diabetic man's death French officials call for investigation of Epstein 'links with France' National Archives: Trump, Bush can review Democrats' request for Kavanaugh records MORE (D-N.Y.) and Intelligence Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffNew intel chief inherits host of challenges Schiff: Intelligence officials' retirements a 'devastating loss' Deputy intelligence director under Trump resigns MORE (D-Calif.) — have set much higher expectations.

Nadler, who had been negotiating for months to win Mueller’s appearance, said the report “presents very substantial evidence that the president is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors” — the very basis for impeaching a president. And Congress must give Mueller an opportunity to present those facts to the American people, he said. 

“We hope it won’t end up being a dud,” Nadler said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Schiff characterized the report itself as a “dry, prosecutorial work product,” saying he hoped Mueller would “bring it to life.”

“Who better to bring them to life than the man who did the investigation himself?” Schiff said Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

“We want the people to hear it directly from him, not filtered through [Attorney General] Bill Barr, who had his own misleading characterization of it,” he said.

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump and the new Israel-'squad' controversy Trump crosses new line with Omar, Tlaib, Israel move Pelosi: Israel's Omar-Tlaib decision 'a sign of weakness' MORE (D-Calif.) also has been underscoring the importance of this moment during separate private meetings with her staff and lawmakers, telling them these Mueller hearings may be the most important thing they do in their congressional careers. This is a patriotic moment for the country and a serious, sober moment for Congress, Pelosi told Democrats. Do not overhype or underhype these hearings, she said.

“Her message was that Mueller coming is a major victory for us and the American people,” said a senior Democratic aide who was present for Pelosi’s pep talks. “We should treat it with a level of dignity that it deserves.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are framing Mueller’s testimony as a futile exercise — and a blatantly political one. Georgia Rep. Doug CollinsDouglas (Doug) Allen CollinsThe United States broken patent system is getting worse Democratic Women's Caucus calls for investigation into Epstein plea deal Activist groups push House Judiciary leaders to end mass phone data collection MORE, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, characterized the hearing as “another round of what we already know.”

“Really what’s happening is it’s the Democrats’ time to make the case that they have not been wasting our time and millions of dollars in our committee hearings, the clown and farce hearings going on, where they’re just harassing the president,” Collins told Fox News on Sunday.

GOP leaders are hoping to go after Mueller with questions on how the investigation — which Trump and his Republican allies say was a partisan “witch hunt” — was launched at the outset. 

“What I want to focus on is, how did we get there to start with?” Collins said. 

Trump weighed in on Monday, amplifying previous attacks on both Mueller (“conflicted”) and the investigation (“phony”). He fluctuated between vowing not to watch the televised hearings and “maybe” tuning in to see “a little bit.” 

“We had no collusion, no obstruction, we had no nothing,” he said from the Oval Office. “They’re wasting their time.”

It’s unlikely Mueller will get rattled if the hearings devolve into an exercise in hyperpartisanship or if lawmakers try to lob questions at him that he views as inappropriate or politically motivated.

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“He’s not only a pro, he could probably write the manual for how a professional law enforcement officer or a professional prosecutor or a professional director of the FBI should comport himself in a congressional hearing,” said Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, who worked with Mueller, noting his dozens of past appearances on Capitol Hill.

“I predict he will not be pushed to answer questions he thinks are inappropriate,” he said.

Kirschner said he anticipates Mueller’s testimony to be “tight-lipped, circumspect,” which he said could ultimately work to bolster his credibility as a witness. 

However, Mueller’s testimony could pose risks for Trump and Republicans if it provides additional insights that move the needle forward and lend new ammunition to the Democrats. His brief nine-minute press conference on May 29 — Mueller’s only public statement since being tapped to lead the probe in May 2017 — largely reiterated what was in the report, but still produced headlines emphasizing his refusal to exonerate Trump on allegations of obstruction of justice,  debunking the president’s claims that the investigation completely vindicated him.

It also illuminated the heavy emphasis Mueller placed on a decades-old Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted, which led some legal analysts to speculate that the policy was the only reason Mueller did not accuse Trump of criminal wrongdoing. 

Barr has said Mueller told him privately that “he was not saying that but for the OLC opinion he would have found obstruction.” Still, Democrats have little faith in the neutrality of Trump’s hand-picked attorney general. And Mueller’s public testimony — which he resisted, forcing congressional committees to subpoena him — may be their last best chance to convince voters that the president’s behavior deviated into the criminal. 

“There’s something about hearing a book read to you by a voice,” Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeJackson Lee: 'Racism is a national security threat' Most oppose cash reparations for slavery: poll Poll: Most Americans oppose reparations MORE (D-Texas), a member of the Judiciary panel, told MSNBC Sunday. “There’s something that gives it character and truth.”

Olivia Beavers contributed.