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What Democrats want from Robert Mueller’s upcoming testimony

Chairmen Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler say they plan to use Mueller’s testimony to vividly bring his report to life.

Special counsel Robert Mueller walks down a dark staircase at the US Capitol.
Special counsel Robert Mueller ahead of a 2017 meeting with the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Top Democrats have revealed how they plan to interview special counsel Robert Mueller when he testifies before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees this week. Their ultimate goal: To make Mueller’s 448-page report on Donald Trump’s ties with Russia and potential obstruction of justice vivid and interesting to the American people.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said Sunday on Face the Nation that doing so is important because most Americans haven’t read Mueller’s summary of his two-year investigation.

Schiff called the report “a pretty damning set of facts that involve a presidential campaign in a close race welcoming help from a hostile foreign power,” but admitted it is “a pretty dry prosecutorial work product.”

“Who better to bring them to life than the man who did the investigation himself?” Schiff asked.

But Mueller has been clear that he doesn’t intend to delve into any juicy tidbits of the investigation that haven’t already been presented in the report. In a public statement earlier this year, Mueller said: “The report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.”

House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler explained Democrats on the committees plan to get around this reluctance by having Mueller read from his report, and by asking him for commentary about what he’s read.

On Fox News Sunday, Nadler gave an example of how this line of questioning would work: “‘Look at page 344, paragraph 2, please read it. Does that describe obstruction of justice? Did you find that the president did that?’” Nadler said.

Mueller agreed to speak publicly only after receiving subpoenas from both the committees. The hearing, initially scheduled for July 17, was pushed back a week. It’s not entirely clear why, but Politico reported a third hour was added to the Judiciary Committee’s time for questioning, suggesting the delay may have been to ensure more members of the committee would have time to interact with Mueller.

In the meantime, Democrats have been coordinating how they plan to interview the special counsel; typically members don’t collaborate on their questions in this way. Schiff and Nadler have reportedly split up the two sections of the report between their committees. The Judiciary Committee will focus on obstruction of justice claims while the Intelligence Committee will ask about Russia’s contacts with Trump associates, the Washington Post reported.

Nadler said he believes the report presents “very substantial evidence” that Trump is guilty of the kinds of crimes that would merit impeachment, and that he hopes to get Mueller to explain a number of the possible instances of obstruction the special counsel outlined in his report.

“We have to let Mueller present those facts to the American people and then see where we go from there, because the administration must be held accountable and no president can be above the law,” he said.

What’s in the Mueller report

Mueller’s report was the result of an investigation beginning after the 2016 election into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian government to influence the US election.

The first portion of the report explores whether the Trump campaign was involved in Russia’s social media propaganda campaign, whether it helped hack into Clinton campaign and Democratic Party accounts, if it leaked information to WikiLeaks, and also looks into Trump associates’ links to Russians. Mueller did not find clear evidence of any Trump-Russia conspiracy but noted that although the report “did not establish particular facts,” that “does not mean that there was no evidence of those facts.”

The second portion explores whether Trump attempted to obstruct justice by gumming up investigations into his relationships with Russia. Mueller does not make it clear whether he believes Trump obstructed justice; the report, however, lays out actions that could be considered obstruction. This section of the report is summed up with the line, “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.” Mueller did not so state.

What Democrats want out of Mueller’s testimony

Only 3 percent of Americans have read all of the Mueller report and only 10 percent have read some of it, according to a CNN poll released in May.

Democrats, aware of those low readership rates, hope that a televised appearance by the special counsel discussing the report will increase public understanding of what is in the report and that it will lead to a surge in public opposition of the president.

And they have reason to believe that may work, at least a bit: After Mueller spoke briefly in May, the percentage of Americans who supported beginning impeachment proceedings went from 16 percent to 22 percent, according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

During that May briefing, Mueller pushed back on what Trump had been calling his “complete and total exoneration” after the report was released. The report neither exonerated nor charged the president, something Mueller made clear.

“As set forth in the report, after that investigation if we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime we would have said so,” Mueller said.

Here’s what the report did say, as explained by Vox’s Andrew Prokop:

Mueller makes clear that his investigation did not establish that there was a conspiracy between Trump associates and the Russian government to interfere with the election. And the special counsel doesn’t say one way or the other whether he thinks President Trump criminally obstructed justice while in office — though he makes clear he thinks the evidence of that is quite concerning. ...

The report makes several things clear: that the Russian government tried to help Trump win, that the Trump campaign was eager to benefit from hackings targeting Democrats, that Trump’s campaign advisers had a host of ties to Russia, and that President Trump tried again and again to try to impede the Russia investigation.

Mueller’s team did not charge Trump with obstruction of justice because the special counsel chose to abide by Justice Department policy that bars indicting a sitting president. Mueller wouldn’t say whether Trump broke the law because, as Prokop wrote, “it would be unfair to the president, because the fact that he can’t be charged means he can’t clear his name with an acquittal at trial.”

Instead, Mueller directed Congress to decide whether Trump is guilty.

“The conclusion that Congress may apply obstruction laws to the President’s corrupt exercise of the powers of office accords with our constitutional system of checks and balances and the principle that no person is above the law,” he wrote in the report. “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

This line empowered congressional Democrats who believed Trump should be impeached, as Vox’s Ella Nilsen and Emily Stewart reported:

Many Democrats viewed this as tantamount to an invitation to the House Judiciary Committee to open an impeachment inquiry — something House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her top lieutenants have been hesitant to wade into. The Democratic leader has instead advocated for her party to continue investigating the president, even as a growing number of her caucus calls for an inquiry to be opened.

The Mueller testimony represents a step forward in that investigation. And Nadler suggested that should the session energize the public, House Democrats could be inclined to reassess their strategy, saying the party would “see where we go from there” after the hearings.

Even if Mueller only reiterates what he’s already laid out in the report, Democrats who support impeachment hope having him speak publicly about his report will move more of their colleagues to back an official inquiry. And those who are reluctant to start an impeachment inquiry hope that Mueller’s testimony will at least hurt the president as he pursues reelection in 2020.

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