Tensions High as Mueller Faces House Interrogation

WASHINGTON (CN) – An enigmatic but central character in the saga of the Russian meddling in the 2016 election, former special counsel Robert Mueller will go before lawmakers Wednesday to testify about the pattern of obstruction snaking its way through the White House.

Then-special counsel Robert Mueller walks past the White House on March 24, 2019, after attending St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington for morning services. Mueller will testify publicly before House panels on July 24 after being subpoenaed. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

Mueller, who resigned as special counsel in May after the official investigation concluded, is expected to appear before the House Judiciary Committee for roughly three hours beginning at 8:30 a.m., followed by another two- to three-hour round with the House Intelligence Committee beginning at noon.

Some Democratic lawmakers have advertised Mueller’s testimony as a critical factor in helping the public and Congress understand the effort to impeach the president. But just 95 of 553 House members have voted in favor of impeachment, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has shied away from the subject, arguing that any attempt at impeachment would be doomed in the Republican-majority controlled Senate and a death knell for Democrats in the 2020 election.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler told Fox News on Sunday that the goal for Wednesday’s hearing is largely to have Mueller lay out the “very substantial evidence” compiled in the final report, which he claims points to President Donald Trump committing high crimes and misdemeanors.

“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,” Nadler said.

Mueller is not expected to deliver any bombshells during his testimony. At his resignation, he indicated the report itself served as his testimony, and the Department of Justice threw more cold water Monday night on the possibility of new information coming to light.

In a letter to the former special counsel, the department directed him to stay within the boundaries of the findings outlined in the 448-page report. Anything beyond what was publicly disclosed, the Justice Department warned, is protected by presidential privilege. White House attorneys who could field any potential threats to executive privilege are not expected to be on hand during Wednesday’s hearing.

Nadler responded to the Justice Department’s warning during an interview with CNN Tuesday morning.

“It’s incredibly arrogant. … It’s a part of the ongoing cover-up by the administration to keep information away from the American people, but I think it’s not going to have a real impact,” Nadler said.

Representative Doug Collins, a vocal critic of the Russia probe and ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, expressed frustration meanwhile with reports that Aaron Zebley, Mueller’s chief of staff, has been invited to testify alongside Mueller on Wednesday.

“Less than 24 hours before Robert Mueller arrives, the chairman is again allowing the committee’s business to devolve into chaos,” Collins said. “If true, the chairman’s unprecedented decision to allow a witness’s counsel to both advise him privately and simultaneously testify alongside him shows the lengths Democrats will go to protect a one-sided narrative from a thorough examining by committee Republicans.”

The move also drew criticism from Ohio Representative Jim Jordan and other Republicans. Previously Collins told Fox News that the hearing was a chance for Democrats “to make the case they haven’t been wasting our time in committee hearings and clown and farce hearings.”

Republican questions are expected to primarily focus on conclusions from Volume 1 of the Mueller report, which found evidence of Russian interference in the election, first by the spread of propaganda on social media and then, through the hacking and distribution of Democratic officials’ emails. They could also grill Mueller about his firing of former FBI counterintelligence specialist Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, a former FBI lawyer who worked on the investigation.

Strzok and Page texted each other critically about Trump during the probe, and both Republicans in Congress and the president have seized on the communications as proof of a “witch hunt.”

Democrats are expected to probe Mueller report’s second volume, which recounts at least 10 instances of potential obstruction committed by Trump. Mueller explained in May that those findings did not lead him to indict Trump because the prosecution of a sitting president is barred by a Department of Justice legal opinion.

Trump’s orders to former White House counsel Don McGahn to have Mueller fired – and later Trump’s denial of that directive – will likely be part of Democrats’ questioning. Other expected topics include Trump’s request for his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to have then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions limit the scope of Mueller’s investigation to future interference in elections.

The White House did not immediately respond to request for comment on Tuesday but a day earlier the president aired his frustration on Twitter.

“Highly conflicted Robert Mueller should not be given another bite at the apple,” Trump tweeted Monday. “In the end it will be bad for him and the phony Democrats in Congress who have done nothing but waste time on this ridiculous Witch Hunt. Result of the Mueller Report, NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION.” (Emphasis original)

The tweet is contrary to the only other public statement Mueller has so far given about his findings.

“If we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said in May.

In the run-up to Mueller’s testimony, the Pew Research Center published a new report Tuesday that says 6 in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents voiced confidence in the fairness of the probe. The statistic represents a considerable jump from January when Pew found that just 39% of Republicans believed the Russia investigation was fair.

Overall public confidence in Mueller’s findings has also increased in recent months. In January, just 55% of those surveyed said they had confidence in the investigation. It now sits at 65%.

Among Republicans who reported having stayed informed about the Russia investigation, Pew found 62% expressed high rates of confidence in the special counsel’s probe. That is twice as high as the research center’s finding in September.

Trust in the Trump administration’s ability to combat future interference by Russia divides sharply along partisan lines. Approximately 81% of Republicans polled say they are very or somewhat confident that the administration is making an effort to prevent meddling in the future. As for Democrats, 83% say they are not too or at all confident the administration is taking preventative or proactive measures to stop it.

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