WASHINGTON (July 24): Robert Mueller made his reluctant, long-awaited appearance before Congress on Wednesday, as Democrats made clear they are going to press the former special counsel to reveal additional information about his investigation of President Donald Trump.
“We decided we would not make a decision on whether the president committed a crime,” Mueller said in his opening statement, and he said that won’t change.
He also said he can’t address disputes over early decisions in the Russia probe — which Republicans say was tainted by anti-Trump bias — that were made months, before he was appointed to take it over. And he said he won’t address decisions made by Attorney General William Barr related to the investigation.
Mueller has made clear that he wanted his 448-page report to speak for itself. Instead, he is being pressed to elaborate on it — and its implications for Trump— in five hours of testimony before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees.
“Any other person who acted this way would have been charged with crimes,” House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler said in his opening statement. “And in this nation, not even the president is above the law. Director Mueller, we have a responsibility to address the evidence you have uncovered.”
Representative Doug Collins, the Judiciary panel’s top Republican, said in his opening statement that “Russia meddled in the 2016 election. The president did not conspire with Russians. Nothing we hear today will change those facts.”
On whether Trump obstructed Mueller’s probe, Collins said, “He did not shut down the investigation. The president knew he was innocent.”
Millions of Americans will be watching the event on live television, Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff of California emphasized. Even Trump — who dismissed the hearings as a desperate move by Democrats, because Mueller’s team found “no collusion, no obstruction” — acknowledged this week that “probably, I’ll see a little” of it.
The president betrayed deeper concern about the hearing in an early morning storm of tweets denouncing Mueller and his team. He denounced Mueller as “highly conflicted”and said the Republican led a team of “Democrat Never Trumper lawyers.” He joined Republican lawmakers in objecting to plans to let Aaron Zebley, Mueller’s longtime aide and his deputy special counsel, advise him during the hearing.
In the morning session, the Judiciary Committee will focus on at least 10 instances that Mueller detailed of efforts to obstruct his 22-month investigation. Mueller said he couldn’t “exonerate” Trump on obstructing justice while invoking Justice Department regulations against charging a president while in office.
In the afternoon, the Intelligence Committee will zero in on multiple contacts between people involved in Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russians who interfered in the presidential election. Mueller said there wasn’t sufficient evidence that the campaign conspired with Russia.
Mueller, 74, has indicated his desire to deliver a just-the-facts recital of evidence.
Schiff, in a letter to Mueller, attacked the Justice Department for instructing the former special counsel that he shouldn’t discuss ongoing cases or uncharged individuals and that some details of his work might be covered by executive privilege.
“The DOJ letter attempts unduly to circumscribe your testimony and represents yet another attempt by the Trump administration to obstruct the authorized oversight activity and legitimate investigations of the committee,” Schiff, a California Democrat, wrote in his letter on Tuesday.
The Justice Department letter had been a response to a request by Mueller for the department’s guidance on his appearance at the hearings before the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees scheduled for Wednesday.
For Democrats, extracting new evidence against Trump from their reluctant witness would be a mixed blessing.
It would help them revive investigations of the president and his administration that have been stymied by the White House’s blanket refusal to allow testimony from current and former administration officials.
But any breakthrough with Mueller also would increase the pressure to open impeachment proceedings against the president. Judiciary chairman Nadler of New York has already said he believes Mueller’s report contains “substantial evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors,” the definition of an impeachable offense. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has continued to resist moving toward impeachment, which she believes may backfire politically.
For Republicans, the hearing presents a dilemma as well: One approach is to say the Mueller investigation is over and done with, producing no real evidence against the president. “I think the American people have moved on past this,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday.
The other is for Republicans to press Mueller on their contention — and Trump’s — that Mueller’s team of prosecutors was dominated by Democrats and that the Russia probe was tainted by anti-Trump bias in the FBI and Justice Department, even before he took it over.
Both of the day’s sessions will unfold in a setting with some history: the House Judiciary Committee’s main hearing room, where impeachment proceedings unfolded for Presidents Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1998.
Still, some Democrats sought to lower expectations that Mueller’s appearance will have much influence on public opinion.
“People are pretty dug-in on not just Trump and Russia, but just dug-in on this president,” Schiff, the Intelligence chairman, said Tuesday.