As a senior Justice Department official and then FBI director for 12 years, Robert S. Mueller III carefully guarded his reputation as a straight shooter in the midst of political upheaval and partisan warfare.
His square-jawed, just-the-facts approach will be put to the ultimate test Wednesday when the former special counsel testifies for five hours in nationally televised House hearings about the Russia investigation, which examined Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election and President Trump’s attempts to shield himself from the probe.
Democrats and Republicans are plotting ways to transform his testimony — first to the House Judiciary Committee and then to the House Intelligence committee — into a series of politically charged sound bites they can use to attack or defend the president.
Democrats plan to steer Mueller toward the most damning parts of his final report, particularly incidents where Trump directed underlings to fire Mueller — none did so — or discourage witnesses from cooperating with the special counsel’s office.
The key question is whether Democrats can get Mueller to say point blank that Trump would have faced criminal charges if he weren’t the president, a declaration that would further blunt Trump’s false claims of full exoneration.
Republicans are expected to pursue a two-pronged approach. They’ll try to undermine Mueller’s credibility by suggesting his team was politically biased against Trump. They also want to highlight conclusions in the report that benefit the president, such as Mueller’s determination that he could not establish a criminal conspiracy between his campaign and Moscow.
Both Democrats and Republicans have at least one thing in common: They expect to face a reluctant witness with a history of terse, dry answers to overheated congressional questioning.
“I think he will be equally parsimonious with both sides,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), chair of the House Intelligence Committee.
Mueller did not want to testify, telling reporters on May 29 that he would not go beyond the details contained in the 448-page report released six weeks earlier. But he agreed to appear on Capitol Hill after Democrats issued him a subpoena.
Jim Popkin, a spokesman for Mueller, said he’s preparing for the hearing with a small group of former officials from the special counsel’s office.
“This is someone who has prided himself over the years for very careful preparation. He will be extremely well prepared come Wednesday,” Popkin said Monday.
Mueller will make an opening statement and submit a redacted copy of his report for the record.
“I think it’s safe to say that on Wednesday he will stick to the four walls of the Mueller report as much as he can,” Popkin said.
In a Monday letter, the Justice Department told Mueller that his testimony “must remain within the boundaries of your public report” to avoid infringing upon executive privilege and other confidentiality requirements. The letter said Mueller had requested guidance from the department earlier this month, a suggestion that he may rely on it to avoid answering questions he wants to avoid.
Democrats have made no secret of their goals — they worry that Trump paid little price for pushing legal and political boundaries, and they’re concerned that voters struggled to digest the lengthy report.
“Not everybody will read the book, but people will watch the movie,” said a Democratic staff member on the Judiciary Committee, who requested anonymity to discuss preparations for the hearing.
Every cable news outlet will show gavel-to-gavel coverage, and the president is an avid viewer of the news. But he insisted Monday that he would try to find something better to do.
“I’m not going to be watching. Probably, maybe I’ll see a little bit,” he told reporters at the White House.
“But I’m not going to be watching Mueller because you can’t take all those bites out of the apple. We had no collusion, no obstruction, we had no nothing.”
As he has repeatedly for two years, Trump decried “a phony investigation” and slammed Mueller several times as “conflicted,” likely previewing the arguments Republicans will make Wednesday.
Mueller’s report did not address the issue of “collusion,” which is not a legal term, and it described a series of unusual contacts between Russians and Trump campaign officials.
It also outlined how Trump’s team was eager to capitalize on Moscow’s assistance, which included releasing hacked Democratic Party emails and spreading disinformation on social media.
The report stopped short of saying whether Trump committed a crime by obstructing justice, citing Justice Department rules that prevent charging a sitting president. But Mueller laid out extensive evidence of Trump’s attempts to limit the investigation and explicitly said the probe “does not exonerate” him.
Democrats plan to focus on several of those incidents in their questioning. Among them: Trump directed his White House counsel, Don McGahn, to fire Mueller, an order that McGahn ultimately ignored. He also asked his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to tell his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to limit the investigation to future election interference. Lewandowski never carried out the request.
Democrats also want to highlight Trump’s support for witnesses who refused to cooperate with the special counsel’s office, such as former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and Trump attacks on those who decided to help prosecutors, notably his former lawyer Michael Cohen.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said the bounty of evidence in the report will make it easier to question Mueller.
“We just want him to highlight his own report,” he said. “So we’re not trying to hit a grand slam here. We’re just trying to not strike out.”
However, Democrats will likely nudge Mueller toward saying one thing that wasn’t explicitly stated in the report — that Trump would have faced criminal charges if he weren’t president.
It’s a conclusion that Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the House Judiciary Committee chairman, has already reached.
“If anyone else had been accused of what the report finds the president had done, they would’ve been indicted,” he told Fox News on Sunday.
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee also fear Trump is getting off easy, using his “no collusion” refrain to cloud clear wrongdoing.
“I’ll consider it successful if the American people will have a better understanding of how the Russians interfered, how much the Trump campaign welcomed the help of a foreign power, how much they made use of it during their campaign and how much they lied to cover up their malfeasance,” Schiff said. “That’s something I’m not sure the public has a full sense of.”
The two committees are stacked with Trump’s allies, including Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), who is the ranking Republican on the intelligence panel. He’s been one of the most outspoken critics of Mueller’s team, recently referring to investigators as “a bunch of dirty cops.”
Nunes and his colleagues will likely push Mueller to identify when he determined there was no conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Moscow, and then question why he didn’t close the investigation at that point.
In the past Republicans have also been aggressive about highlighting text messages between Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, a FBI agent and FBI lawyer who traded private criticisms of Trump while working on the Russia investigation.
Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), an intelligence committee member, said he doubts there’s much to learn from Mueller at this point.
“I can’t imagine there’s much to glean from him beyond what’s in the report,” he said.
He added, “I think it’s just theater.”