Democrats to highlight obstruction in Mueller hearings

The Democratic playbook for former special counsel Robert Mueller's July 24 Congressional testimony plans to focus mainly on potential obstruction of justice by the president. With much to say and little time, their efforts are becoming increasingly scripted. 

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Former special counsel Robert Mueller speaks at the Department of Justice in Washington about the Russia investigation May 29, 2019. Mr. Mueller is scheduled to testify before Congress in back-to-back hearings July 24, 2019.

Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee who will question former special counsel Robert Mueller next week plan to focus on a narrow set of episodes laid out in his report, an effort to direct Americans' attention to what they see as the most egregious examples of President Donald Trump's conduct.

The examples from the Mueller report include Mr. Trump's directions to White House counsel Donald McGahn to have Mr. Mueller removed and, later, orders from Mr. Trump to Mr. McGahn to deny that happened. Democrats also will focus questioning on a series of meetings Mr. Trump had with former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in which the Republican president directed Mr. Lewandowski to persuade then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit Mr. Mueller's investigation.

Mr. Mueller laid out several episodes in which Mr. Trump tried to influence his investigation and wrote that he could not exonerate the president on obstruction of justice. Democratic aides say they believe the McGahn and Lewandowski narratives, explained in detail in the 448-page report, are clear examples of such obstruction and will be easy to understand as lawmakers try to educate the American public on a report that they believe most people haven't read. The aides requested anonymity to freely discuss members' plans for questioning.

The House Judiciary and intelligence committees will question Mr. Mueller in back-to-back hearings July 24. The testimony had been originally scheduled for July 17, but was delayed under a new deal struck with Mr. Mueller last week that would give him more time to prepare and give members more time for questioning. Still, time will be extremely limited, with an expected three hours for the Judiciary committee and two for the smaller intelligence committee. Some members on the Judiciary panel could have less than the regular five minutes for questioning.

In addition to the time restraints, Mr. Mueller is a reluctant witness. He had said he would prefer not to come at all, and has insisted he will stick only to the contents of the report.

So, to effectively highlight what they see as the most damaging parts of the report, Democratic lawmakers said Thursday that they will have to do something that members of Congress aren't used to doing: limit the long speeches and cut to the chase.

"Members just need to focus," said Illinois Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democratic member of the intelligence panel. "Nobody's watching them. Keep it short, keep focused, listen to each other, work together. Make this as productive as possible."

Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democrat on the Judiciary committee, predicted: "You will find little or no editorializing or speechifying by the members. This is all about allowing special counsel Mueller to speak."

Democrats on the committee said they have been working with committee staff on which members will ask what. The staff wants to make sure that they ask targeted questions, such as on Mr. Trump's directions to Mr. McGahn and Mr. Lewandowski.

"It's going to be fairly scripted," said Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, another Democrat on the Judiciary panel. "The main goal is to get Robert Mueller to say what Robert Mueller wrote in the Mueller report. And then get it on national TV, so people can hear him saying it."

The Judiciary Committee aides said that they want lawmakers to take multiple pieces of information in Mr. Mueller's report and connect the dots for viewers. Besides the episodes with Mr. McGahn and Mr. Lewandowski, they said lawmakers also will focus on the president's conduct toward his former lawyer Michael Cohen and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, both of whom faced federal charges as part of Mr. Mueller's probe and are now in prison. The report looks at how Mr. Trump praised both men when he perceived they were on his side, contacting Mr. Cohen to tell him to "stay strong" and publicly praising Mr. Manafort for "refusing to break." There also were subtle hints that he could pardon each.

Mr. Cohen eventually started cooperating with the government, and Mr. Trump then publicly called him a "rat" and suggested his family members had committed crimes.

Democrats on the House intelligence panel are expected to focus on the first volume of Mr. Mueller's report, which details multiple contacts between Mr. Trump's campaign and Russia. Mr. Mueller found that there was not enough evidence to establish a conspiracy between the two, prompting Mr. Trump's steady refrains of "no collusion."

House intelligence committee aides, who also declined to be identified to discuss the confidential preparations, said they believe the public has received a slanted view of what Mr. Mueller found because of Mr. Trump's repeated comments, and that the details of Russia's interference in the election – and the outreach to the Trump campaign – haven't gotten enough attention. Lawmakers on that panel are expected to focus on those contacts and on what the report says about WikiLeaks, the website that released Democratic emails stolen by the Russians.

As the Democrats methodically work through the highlights of the report, it could start to feel a bit like a class: Mueller 101.

Mr. Raskin, a longtime constitutional law professor, says he plans to use some visual aids, like posters, to help people better understand what Mr. Mueller wrote.

"We have different kinds of learners out there," Mr. Raskin said. "And we want people to learn, both in an auditory way but also in a visual way, about these dramatic events that Mueller will be discussing."

Republicans are preparing as well and are expected to focus more on Mr. Mueller's conclusions – that there isn't enough evidence of a conspiracy and no charges on obstruction – than the individual episodes detailed. The top Republican on the Judiciary panel, Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, said his members will be asking questions that aim to confirm what is in the report.

But while the Democrats are eagerly anticipating the opportunity, many of the Republicans are weary.

"Frankly the American people have moved on," Mr. Collins said. They "want to get it behind us."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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