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House gears up for Mueller testimony

House lawmakers are gearing up for their highly anticipated public hearing with former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerBarr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting MORE next Wednesday. 

Democratic members and staff on the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees in recent days have held closed door meetings to lay out their game plans in advance of Mueller’s testimony. 

Judiciary lawmakers say they’re painstakingly planning their questions to maximize their time with Mueller, but members on both sides of the aisle are keeping their specific lines of questioning close to the vest. 

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“All the members are dreaming up the questions that they want to ask, but I think that the chairman and the committee staff are trying to impose an overarching structure and methodology to the questioning, which is good,” said Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDemocrats debate fate of Trump probes if Biden wins Congress must repeal tax breaks for the wealthy passed in CARES Act COVID-19 and the problem of presidential succession MORE (D-Md.), a member of the Judiciary panel. “We have to make sure that we cover a lot of terrain in a very short period of time.”

Mueller is slated to testify Wednesday for three hours before the Judiciary Committee and for two hours before the Intelligence Committee in back-to-back hearings.

Judiciary’s hearing is expected to focus largely on the episodes of potential obstruction. While Mueller did not reach a conclusion on whether President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump alludes to possible 2024 run in White House remarks Trump threatens to veto defense bill over tech liability shield Tiger King's attorney believes they're close to getting pardon from Trump MORE obstructed the probe, Democrats say his report contains clear evidence that he engaged in conduct for which any other American would have been charged with criminal wrongdoing. 

Committee staff told reporters Thursday that many questions will focus on five particular episodes laid out in second volume of the report, including Trump’s instruction to former White House counsel Don McGahn to have Mueller removed and Trump’s effort to have former campaign aide Corey LewandowskiCorey R. LewandowskiGiuliani's son, a White House staffer, tests positive for coronavirus Chelsea Clinton blames Trump for Secret Service officers in quarantine More than 130 Secret Service officers in quarantine: report MORE persuade then-Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsTime to bring federal employees home for every holiday Alabama zeroes in on Richard Shelby's future Tuberville incorrectly says Gore was president-elect in 2000 MORE to limit the investigation. 

Intelligence lawmakers, on the other hand, are expected to focus on the contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia laid out in Volume I.

While Mueller did not charge anyone associated with the campaign with conspiring with Russia, Democrats say Mueller’s documentation contains troubling details that have been obscured by Trump and Attorney General William BarrBill BarrBarr breaks with Trump on claims of fraud Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel Barr says DOJ hasn't uncovered widespread voter fraud in 2020 election MORE

Mueller says he will not go beyond the four corners of his report, and lawmakers and committee staff are conscious of that as they ready their questions. Broadly, Democrats say they’ll be satisfied as long as Mueller unpacks the details of his report so the American public can understand what he found. 

“People think in narratives,” said Rep. Madeleine DeanMadeleine DeanEyes turn to Ocasio-Cortez as she seeks to boost Biden Democrats blister Barr during tense hearing Democratic lawmakers launch 'Mean Girls'-inspired initiative to promote face masks MORE (D-Pa.), a Judiciary member. “There is an incredibly damning set of narratives in this report and so that’s what we need Mr. Mueller to show.” 

Democrats say there are still multiple gaps of information they want Mueller to fill. Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsDemings on Florida: 'We're excited about what we're seeing' but 'taking absolutely nothing for granted' Why it's time for a majority female Cabinet Sunday shows preview: The final push to Election Day MORE (D-Fla.), a member of both committees, said she is interested in learning more about conversations between Mueller and Barr. 

“Obviously, there was disagreement there that was so strong that the special counsel felt the need to memorialize it in a memo,” Demings said.

And an Intelligence staffer signaled Thursday that members would ask questions beyond the confines of the report. 

“It is [Intelligence] Chairman [Adam] Schiff’s view that Director Mueller may have that view, the department may or may not have that view, but it is not Congress’s view, at least it is not the Intelligence Committee’s view, that he has to stay within the four corners,” the staffer said. “We don’t subscribe to that.” 

Wednesday’s hearing also offers Republicans a chance to question the man who ran a 22-month investigation that dogged Trump during much of his first term in the Oval Office. 

Republicans say they’re gearing up for the hearing, holding a meeting to practice their own questions. 

“We sort of had smaller sub groups meeting and talking about it regularly. We had what I call the big moot court exercise — I don’t know what the proper term is. I call it a moot court exercise,” Rep. Mike JohnsonJames (Mike) Michael JohnsonNew RSC chairman sees 'Trumpism' as future House GOP votes to keep leaders in place This week: Clock ticks on coronavirus, government funding deals MORE (R-La.), a Judiciary member, said. “The point is that we’re being very deliberate.”

The dueling committees boast a handful of the president’s fiercest allies, who are expected to question Mueller on the origins of the investigation and cast doubt on his credibility. 

Preparations are expected to stretch into next week, with lawmakers slated to return to Washington one day before Mueller’s appearance. Neither Schiff nor Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerThis week: Congress races to wrap work for the year Top Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn MORE (D-N.Y.) have spoken to Mueller ahead of his appearance, and it’s unclear whether they plan to do so. 

The hearing was initially slated for June 17, but was pushed back to allow Judiciary more time in exchange for a delay allowing Mueller an additional week to prepare. The current format means that all 22 lawmakers on the Intelligence panel will each get five minutes to question the former special counsel. 

Judiciary, which boasts 24 Democrats and 41 members total, will need to more creatively divide up the time among Democrats in order to adhere to a three-hour limit and allow everyone to ask questions. 

Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee is still negotiating with the Justice Department over closed-door testimony from two of Mueller’s deputies. The Judiciary Committee is not expected to hear from the deputies next week.

Judiciary Democrats said their members took part in either individual or small group meetings to go over their questions ahead of time, in addition to staff-to-staff meetings.

The preparations come amid pressure from top party leaders to treat the hearing seriously, with Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPressure builds for coronavirus relief with no clear path to deal Top GOP senator warns government funding deal unlikely this week Houston will send residents checks of up to ,200 for pandemic relief MORE (D-Calif.) describing it as one of the most important things these panel members may do during their congressional careers. 

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say Mueller is the wild card.

Some Democrats worry the party is resting too heavily on Mueller’s testimony to be their ticket to press forward with impeachment, with some openly wondering whether he will be an effective storyteller or fall flat as a robotic responder.

Republicans also privately expressed fears about Mueller’s appearance, stating that he could easily light more pro-impeachment fires if he uses certain words that have different connotations, purposefully or unintentionally.

“There are more things that can go wrong for our side than can go right,” one Republican member told The Hill.

Mueller’s nine-minute public remarks after the release of the report illustrated the point, the GOP member said. Democrats walked away further empowered in the belief that Mueller had given far more weight to the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion that a sitting president can't be indicted when deciding whether to accuse Trump of wrongdoing than the written report previously indicated. 

Other Republican members say Mueller’s appearance represents an opportunity.

“I think he wrote the report as critical of the president as he could be and almost anything we ask him now is going to cast it in a better light,” said Rep. Chris StewartChris StewartAtlanta Wendy's 911 call the night of Rayshard Brooks's death released Tyler Perry offers to pay for funeral of Rayshard Brooks Current, former NHL players form diversity coalition to fight intolerance in hockey MORE (R-Utah), a member of the Intelligence Committee. “I think we have a real opportunity here.”

Scott Wong contributed reporting.