Mueller tes­ti­mony poses risk for Trump, Dems

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - Second Front - By LISA MASCARO and MARY CLARE JALONICK

WASH­ING­TON — Robert Mueller’s tes­ti­mony be­fore Congress will de­pend not so much on what he says, but that he’s even say­ing it at all.

For Democrats, the spe­cial coun­sel’s ap­pear­ance Wed­nes­day cre­ates a mo­ment many have been wait­ing for: Mueller fi­nally speak­ing out, pierc­ing the pub­lic con­scious­ness about Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s re­sponse to the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion and whether any­thing should be done about it.

The po­lit­i­cal stakes are high for Trump, but also for Democrats, who have spent the past two years push­ing to­ward this day. As pub­lic at­ten­tion has drifted and views have hard­ened, Democrats are count­ing on Amer­i­cans hear­ing what most have not likely read — the stun­ning find­ings of Mueller’s 448-page re­port .

“Let us lis­ten, let us see where the facts will take us,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Cal­i­for­nia. “Then we’ll see what hap­pens af­ter that.”

Yet there’s a real pos­si­bil­ity that Mueller may not bring clar­ity.

It took months to ne­go­ti­ate his ap­pear­ance be­fore Congress and he has been re­luc­tant to speak be­yond what he and his team wrote. Few bomb­shells are ex­pected. As the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee and the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee gavel in, the but­toned-down pros­e­cu­tor, once en­vi­sioned as a trusted last word, may de­liver just-the-facts re­sponses that leave more ques­tions than an­swers.

Rather than gal­va­niz­ing pub­lic opinion and the ques­tions of im­peach­ment, Mueller’s re­luc­tant ap­pear­ance may be­come just an­other chap­ter in the Trump era that won’t be closed un­til the 2020 elec­tion.

Trump tried to project a lack of in­ter­est, claim­ing he will not tune in to Wed­nes­day’s hours­long hear­ings and say­ing Democrats are “just play­ing games.”

“I won’t be watch­ing Mueller,” he told re­porters.

The na­tion, though, will likely pay at­ten­tion.

Mueller’s ap­pear­ance comes more than two years since the start of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, an ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­ment in Trump’s pres­i­dency when, af­ter Trump had fired FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey, his Jus­tice De­part­ment ap­pointed Mueller to take over the in­quiry into elec­tion in­ter­fer­ence and the po­ten­tial role that Trump and his win­ning 2016 cam­paign may have played.

Mueller spoke pub­licly only once, say­ing his team’s re­port, re­leased in April, should speak for it­self.

The re­port found that while there was no ev­i­dence the cam­paign col­luded with Rus­sia to swing the elec­tion, Trump could not be cleared of try­ing to ob­struct the in­ves­ti­ga­tion . But Mueller be­lieved he couldn’t be in­dicted in part be­cause of a Jus­tice De­part­ment opinion against prose­cut­ing a sit­ting pres­i­dent.

The spe­cial coun­sel’s team ap­peared to punt the ques­tion to Congress to decide next steps. More than 80 House Democrats now say there should be im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings, and it’s likely that Mueller’s tes­ti­mony in­creases that num­ber.

But time has a way of chang­ing the po­lit­i­cal dy­namic. While Mueller’s tes­ti­mony was once en­vi­sioned as a crys­tal­iz­ing event, a Water­gate-style mo­ment to un­cover truths, pub­lic at­ten­tion has drifted in the months since the re­port was re­leased.

Trump, a master at chang­ing the sub­ject, has eas­ily shifted the pub­lic’s at­ten­tion to his racist at­tacks on four women of color in Congress.

“Tim­ing mat­ters,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Prince­ton Univer­sity. He and oth­ers who fa­vor open­ing im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings say Mueller should have tes­ti­fied months ago.

A June poll by AP-NORC Cen­ter for Pub­lic Af­fairs Re­search found 31% of Amer­i­cans said they didn’t know enough to say whether Mueller’s re­port had com­pletely cleared Trump of co­or­di­na­tion with Rus­sia and 30% didn’t know whether it had not com­pletely cleared Trump of ob­struc­tion. A CNN poll found that just 3% said they had read the whole re­port.

Democrats are count­ing on Mueller’s pres­ence to cap­ture pub­lic at­ten­tion in ways the re­port has been un­able to do.

“I do think that the con­tents of the re­port are so sig­nif­i­cant, and so damn­ing, that when Mr. Mueller brings them to life, and ac­tu­ally tells the Amer­i­can peo­ple ... it will have an im­pact,” said Rep. David Ci­cilline, D-Rhode Is­land, a mem­ber of the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee.

It’s not lost on Democrats that they are brush­ing up against a nar­ra­tive al­ready set, by Trump’s claims of no col­lu­sion or ob­struc­tion, and At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Barr’s fram­ing of the re­port be­fore its pub­lic re­lease with his stamp of no wrong­do­ing.

“There are still mil­lions of peo­ple who think, ab­surdly, that there is no ev­i­dence of pres­i­den­tial ob­struc­tion or col­lu­sion in the re­port,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Mary­land, a mem­ber of the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee and a pro­fes­sor of con­sti­tu­tional law. He said Trump and Barr have left a “fog of pro­pa­ganda” hang­ing over the coun­try. “We just want to clear the fog,” he said.

Congress has over­sight of the ex­ec­u­tive branch, and law­mak­ers on the com­mit­tees plan to delve into key ar­eas of the re­port where Trump in­ter­fered with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Democrats of­ten note that ob­struc­tion was in­cluded in the ar­ti­cles of im­peach­ment against Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon.

One fo­cus will be on the con­ver­sa­tions Trump had with ex-White House coun­sel, Don McGahn, first as the pres­i­dent tried to fire Mueller over the Rus­sia probe, and later to di­rect the lawyer to deny that he had or­dered for Mueller be dis­missed.

There will be ques­tions about po­ten­tial wit­ness tam­per­ing, and the sug­ges­tions of a pres­i­den­tial par­don for Trump’s former cam­paign man­ager, Paul Manafort, and con­ver­sa­tions with Trump’s former per­sonal at­tor­ney, Michael Co­hen. Both men are now in cus­tody, serv­ing sen­tences on other charges.

Repub­li­cans will likely try to turn the ta­bles, cast­ing doubt on the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion and its ori­gins dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

But Mueller, 74, who hews to stan­dards of an ear­lier era, is not ex­pected to stray be­yond the doc­u­ment his team pro­duced. Aides to law­mak­ers say they have been re­view­ing his past con­gres­sional ap­pear­ances and are ex­pect­ing one-word an­swers and few sur­prises.

That could lead to an un­ful­fill­ing con­clu­sion for Democrats, and oth­ers, who are hop­ing Mueller’s tes­ti­mony will bring some res­o­lu­tion.

As­so­ci­ated Press files

Then-FBI Di­rec­tor Robert Mueller tes­ti­fies on Capi­tol Hill in 2013. When Mueller tes­ti­fies Wed­nes­day be­fore Congress, it will be a mo­ment many have been wait­ing for, but it comes with risk for Democrats.

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