Democrats have been dying to hear directly from special counsel Robert Mueller for months, but they’re not alone. President Donald Trump’s GOP allies in Congress are salivating at the chance to bruise Mueller’s reputation and cast doubt on the integrity of his work.
Mueller’s intensely anticipated July 17 testimony will bring him face to face with the Republican lawmakers who have savaged his reputation and called him the ringleader of a “coup” against Trump. While Democrats attempt to squeeze morsels of new information out of the notoriously tight-lipped investigator, these Trump defenders are signaling that they’ll use the historic moment to try to undercut his credibility and paint him as a political pawn in Democrats’ efforts to undermine the president.
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“He’s done some irreparable damage to some things and he’s got to answer for them,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert, one of 25 Republicans on the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees who get to grill Mueller during the back-to-back hearings. The Texas congressman added that his reading of the special counsel’s report did little to temper his long history of animosity for the former FBI director: “It reinforced the anal opening that I believe Mueller to be.”
Many House Republicans on the committees set to interview him have actually supported Mueller in the past, even if they’ve criticized his Russia investigation; they’ve sought to separate the man — a senior Justice Department appointee dating to the George H.W. Bush administration and Marine Corps veteran — from the probe.
But Mueller will also face a grilling from Trump’s top Republican allies in Congress, including Reps. Jim Jordan (Ohio), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Devin Nunes (Calif.) and Andy Biggs (Ariz.). They intend to press him on long-held articles of Trumpian faith: that Mueller’s team was biased against the president from the start and that the Russia investigation was tainted by inappropriate surveillance.
It’s one of the uncomfortable realities for Mueller, who is reluctantly coming to Capitol Hill under subpoena, despite telling lawmakers he intends to say nothing beyond the words in his 448-page report, which described a Trump campaign eager to benefit from Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“It becomes reader’s theatre,” predicted Biggs, a member of the Judiciary Committee. When pressed on whether he thought the high-profile hearing could backfire for Democrats, the Arizona Republican replied with a smile: “I certainly hope so.”
“I’m looking forward to it,” he added.
Back when Democrats were still hopeful they’d be able to secure the special counsel’s testimony voluntarily, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, even released a statement calling on Chairman Jerry Nadler to seek Mueller’s testimony. He called the aftermath of his report “a critical moment in our country’s history.”
In his report, Mueller indicated that he lacked evidence to charge any American with conspiring with Russians, but he detailed more than 100 contacts between Trump associates and Russian operatives. Mueller also laid out damning evidence of Trump’s attempts to interfere in the special counsel’s investigation.
Democrats hope to use the moment to bring Mueller’s findings mainstream. They’ve lamented that since Mueller’s redacted final report became public in mid-April, few Americans have actually read the document; instead it has been filtered through the lens of TV newscasts and cable punditry. A growing contingent of House Democrats who favor launching impeachment proceedings against Trump, largely because of what Mueller found, say they hope his on-camera recitation of his findings accomplish what the last two months haven’t.
But Republicans preparing over the next two-plus weeks to question Mueller say they have their own points they hope to drive home to Americans as well. Several indicated they intend to press Mueller on when he first determined he lacked evidence to charge Americans with conspiring with Russia — insinuating, without evidence, that he allowed suspicions to linger long after he had shifted his focus to the obstruction of justice investigation.
“The obvious question is the one that everyone in the country wants to know: when did you first know there was no conspiracy, coordination or collusion?” said Jordan, one of the Republicans’ fiercest investigators. “How much longer did it take Bob Mueller to figure that out? Did he intentionally wait until after 2018 midterms, or what?”
Mueller emphasized in his report that he did not make a finding on “collusion,” since it’s not a legal term, and that his decision not to bring charges didn’t mean he found no evidence of them.
Republicans have also questioned whether Mueller’s team was biased against Trump — or at least appeared that it was — because of the presence of officials who had either donated to Democratic candidates or privately criticized Trump. They’ve highlighted unearthed text messages from longtime FBI agent Peter Strzok, who helped initiate the investigation of the Trump campaign, in which he repeatedly blasted Trump. Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team early on, after his texts were discovered.
“How did he handle all that? What did he ask Mr. Strzok?” Jordan said he intends to ask. “Did he really check into how biased he was and how it impacted his work? I think that’s a pretty good line of questioning.”
Republicans say they intend to huddle and devise a full strategy ahead of the Mueller hearing. Still, they’ve already signaled that they want to press the former special counsel on how the so-called Steele Dossier factored into his work. Former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele compiled the document in 2016, describing salacious allegations about a years-long conspiracy between Trump and Russians. During the last presidential campaign, the opposition research firm Fusion GPS hired Steele, who had a longtime relationship with the FBI on Russia-related matters, to scrutinize Trump. Steele also passed his findings on to the FBI, which later used them to help obtain a surveillance warrant on a Trump campaign associate, Carter Page.
Steele’s work is mentioned more than a dozen times in the redacted version of Mueller’s final report, and Republicans say they want to know more about how Mueller viewed it and whether it informed any of his findings.
“That’s such an important part of this whole thing,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), a member of the Intelligence Committee. “I would’ve thought he’d have wanted to know more about that.”
Republicans should be wary of overreaching in their questioning of Mueller, Capitol Hill and Justice Department veterans say. Mueller, who led the FBI under both a Republican and Democratic president, has long enjoyed bipartisan support. And he’ll be ready to parry any of the flak that GOP lawmakers send his way.
“Bob will stick with Marine-like discipline to his battle plan of staying within the four corners of his report. Members will say much more with their statements than he will say with his answers,” said Paul McNulty, who was a deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration Justice Department while Mueller was FBI Director. He also served as a U.S. attorney and as a House Judiciary GOP aide during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment proceedings.
Sam Sokol, a former top House Judiciary Committee Democratic counsel, said Republicans are asking for trouble if they travel down rabbit holes in their questioning.
“I think Mueller will be extremely prepared,” he said. “He’ll present factually compelling — and my guess would be an emotionally powerful — defense of the good faith and patriotism of his team.”
“I think the claims of bias or flawed procedures or misuse of the FISA court that have been made, as far as I’ve seen, don’t have a credible foundation and I think Mueller will be able to expose how small and political those charges are, especially when put up against the gravity of the attack on our election and foreign interference on our democracy that his report documents,” Sokol said.
Michael Zeldin, who served as Mueller’s special counsel when he was assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said Mueller “has to prepare for a Republican onslaught, which could backfire if Mueller is on his game.”
“He gets impatient, agitated, and he’s not one who abides fools lightly. But I can’t imagine the GOP questioning will make him nervous, because there’s there nothing to expose,” said Zeldin, who added that he’s never seen Mueller get nervous.
Other longtime observers of presidential scandal also see Republicans costing Trump politically if they push Mueller in ways that don’t make sense to that small sliver of independent, swing-vote Americans who haven’t yet made up their mind about the significance of the Russia investigation by the time the hearing rolls around later this month.
“Ironically, the thing that might hurt the president the most is the tea party people who will ask Mueller probably the most hostile questions,” said Steven Brill, a veteran journalist who covered Clinton’s impeachment and later founded the cable channel Court TV. “It seems to me the most likely drama is they’re going to step in it by asking some hostile questions not based in anything.”
Still, some Republicans are betting that Democrats will fumble, as congressional investigators have thus far failed to land any major blows on Trump. Democrats were mercilessly mocked by the GOP for hauling in former Nixon White House Counsel John Dean during their first hearing on the Mueller report, while others criticized Democrats for gleaning little information from former Trump aide Hope Hicks during her recent closed-door testimony.
“The Democrats have tried impeachment lite for two months. They’ve tried hearings. They brought John Dean. They brought a cavalcade of circus stars and nothing’s changed,” said Collins. “It’s still the report.”