Former special counsel Robert Mueller faces Congress next week, an appearance that represents the culmination of two years of work since he was first appointed to investigate Russian election interference and the Trump campaign. It will also be the first time many Americans hear him speak publicly.
The notoriously tight-lipped former FBI chief has repeatedly avoided interviews, and only offered public comment at a press conference earlier this year at which he formally announced his resignation following the completion of his report.
But Mueller can no longer hide from the spotlight. And testifying before both the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees offers an opportunity for Americans not only to familiarize themselves with Mueller, but also with the 448-page report he and his team completed earlier this year.
Unfortunately, most Americans — including numerous congressional officials — have still not read the full report, which details both the Trump campaign’s attempts to conspire with Russia and Russia’s broader interference efforts. Portions of the report remain redacted, which means the public has still not seen the entirety of the report.
Congressional Democrats are likely to question Mueller about his findings, his process, and his thoughts on everything that’s happened since. Republicans have used their time during similar hearings to throw cold water on the findings regarding Russia’s interference efforts and President Donald Trump’s ties to Moscow.
Here are five things to look out for in the upcoming testimony relating to his report, Trump’s behavior, and how Mueller’s work and his words have been twisted by the administration.
1. Will Mueller actually say anything new?
The short answer: It depends on what Democrats ask, and how they ask it.
Mueller is not likely to volunteer new information: He held a press conference in May to formally announce the end of his tenure as special counsel. During that anti-climactic press conference, Mueller not only refused to take any questions, but pointed time and again to the fact that everything he had to say was already contained in the report.
Mueller also reiterated that his congressional testimony would be precisely the same, and would contain nothing that isn’t in the report. As he said:
There has been discussion about an appearance before Congress. Any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report. It contains our findings and analysis, and the reasons for the decisions we made. We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself. And the report is my testimony. I would not provide information beyond that which is already public in any appearance before Congress.
Of course, given that the congressional testimony will be live, the questions — and Mueller’s responses — could go in any direction. He could well have changed his mind from his previous statement, and decided that the time has come to reveal, say, whether he has formed any new opinions about the Trump campaign’s attempts at collusion. He almost certainly won’t reveal anything within the redacted portion of the report; while he’s no longer a Department of Justice employee, there’s no indication Mueller would cross such a stark line.
All told, given Mueller’s previous history — the fact that he refused any interviews, or that his team famously leaked no details whatsoever about the investigation — there’s little reason to think he’ll go beyond what’s contained in the document.
That’s not to say, however, that the testimony will be pointless: Mueller could offer information on what has happened since his report was submitted in March. The mere act of repeating the report’s findings in a public setting is likely to shed light on its contents for Americans who are still confused about what the president and his campaign did.
2. Why didn’t Mueller subpoena the president?
When the dust settled following the release of Mueller’s redacted report, one question lingered: Why didn’t Mueller subpoena the president, whose campaign benefited from Russia’s interference efforts?
Mueller attempted to address in the report why he and his team allowed Trump to submit written answers, but didn’t force him to sit down in person. “Recognizing that the President would not be interviewed voluntarily, we considered whether to issue a subpoena for his testimony,” Mueller’s report read.
Mueller’s report also noted that Trump’s written answers were often little more than “I do not remember” or “I do not recall,” with the president claiming ignorance numerous times throughout the report. “We viewed the written answers to be inadequate,” the report read. “But at that point, our investigation had made significant progress and had produced substantial evidence for our report. We thus weighed the costs of potentially lengthy constitutional litigation, with resulting delay in finishing our investigation, against the anticipated benefits for our investigation and report.”
Within the legalese, it’s clear that Mueller viewed trying to get a sit-down with Trump as an unnecessary burden — a view House Democrats will almost certainly disagree with.
As with other aspects of the investigation and the report, the likelihood that Mueller will speak at length about his team’s efforts to get Trump to speak remains negligible.
However, that’s not to say some new details won’t slip out during his testimony. After all, Trump’s written answers to Mueller didn’t even address his attempts at obstructing Mueller’s own investigation, which will almost certainly be a primary topic of the testimony. And despite the claims from Trump and his allies — namely, that Mueller is little more than a front for what Trump has described as a “witch hunt” — House Democrats will likely vent their frustration with Mueller’s decision not to sit with the president in person, all of which will provide Mueller an opening to discuss his thoughts on Trump’s actions more broadly during the testimony.
3. Why didn’t Mueller include more incidents of Russian interference efforts?
One of the biggest questions following the release of the redacted Mueller report dealt with the scope of Russia’s interference efforts in 2016. Those efforts, as Mueller’s report details, included stealing internal Democratic communications, then funneling those communiques through cut-outs like WikiLeaks and fabricated online personae. That’s in addition to Russia launching social media interference efforts on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Those efforts were the most high-profile, and arguably the most successful: Not only did discussions of stolen Democratic emails dominate much of the 2016 campaign, but the social media efforts saw Russia create wildly popular accounts to blast disinformation at followers.
Mueller’s report, however, didn’t delve into all of the prongs of Russia’s interference attempts during and after the election — some of which are ongoing and are targeting the 2020 presidential election.
For instance, there was no mention in Mueller’s report of a Kremlin-sponsored group helping American secessionists travel to Russia in 2016. Separatists from states like Texas and California huddled in Moscow shortly before the election, attending a meeting organized by the Kremlin-backed Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR). Shortly after the election, the AGMR even provided rent-free space for the YesCalifornia secession group to open up an “embassy” in Moscow — all while fake Russian Twitter accounts pushed for California independence.
There are also plenty of questions remaining about links between Russia and the secessionist, neo-Confederate League of the South, which expanded its Russian-language outreach following the election. The League of the South also has its own ties to the AGMR.
Mueller’s report also didn’t offer any details of convicted Russian agent Maria Butina’s efforts to infiltrate the National Rifle Association (NRA), all while coordinating with now-sanctioned former Russian official Alexander Torshin. Nor did it mention Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who flew to Moscow in late 2015 to sit next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a gala for the Russian propaganda outlet RT — at the same time an NRA delegation was. visiting Moscow.
Meanwhile, questionable links between employees of sanctioned Russian oligarchs and American Christian fundamentalists continue — and have since extended to Evangelicals like Franklin Graham, who had a sit-down meeting with a sanctioned Russian official in March. Interference, influence, back-channels: all have continued since 2016 and contain many avenues beyond what Mueller reported on.
And they show no signs of slowing. Not only did Russian trolls attempt to sow confusion in the 2018 midterms, but Trump has never treated election security as a serious concern. In his most recent meeting with Putin, Trump smirked while sarcastically chiding the Russian president over Russian interference efforts. Putin responded by laughing.
4. What does Mueller think of William Barr’s handling of the Mueller report?
Given everything Mueller has both done and said, it remains unlikely that new information on Mueller’s own investigation — details unpublished, conversations undisclosed — are going to be the headlines after the testimony.
But Mueller has only ruled out further discussion of anything pertaining to what was in the report — not what has happened since, especially in regards to the Trump administration’s roll-out of the report. Ever since Mueller’s team submitted their formal report, the Trump administration — especially Attorney General William Barr — has taken any number of steps to obfuscate Mueller’s findings and to protect the president from any potential legal jeopardy.
Barr’s defense of the president was seen most clearly in Barr’s initial response to releasing Mueller’s findings. Rather than publish the report outright, or even in its redacted version, Barr instead penned a four-page letter that both shot down potential legal threats facing the president (including obstruction) while also slanting (and in some cases outright misrepresenting) Mueller’s overall findings in favor of the White House.
Barr’s move to whitewash the report was so egregious that Mueller, even with his taciturn reputation, wrote a letter to Barr pointing out the attorney general’s malfeasance. “The summary letter the Department [of Justice] sent to Congress… did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions,” Mueller wrote. “There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine a central purpose for which the Department appointed the Special Counsel: to assure full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations.”
Given that Mueller has already been willing to go on record with his complaints about Barr’s handling of the investigation — and that Barr has since refused to comply entirely with congressional questions — the focus on the attorney general’s actions will likely play an outsize role on Wednesday.
5. How will the White House react to the testimony?
Trump’s reaction to Mueller’s forthcoming testimony will almost certainly be his usual response to public embarrassment: lies, deceit, and threats about retribution to come, both against. Mueller and the congressional officials questioning him.
Despite Trump’s autocratic whims, there still exists an entire world of legal machinery beyond the president’s control. And while Trump appears increasingly unlikely to face any outright legal jeopardy while in office, he will not be immune to prosecution once he finally leaves office.
Mueller, for instance, won’t only be speaking before congressional cameras, but he may join other members of his team for closed-door sessions with members of Congress to discuss classified material. The White House and DOJ will almost certainly try to insert their own lawyers into those meetings to try to direct both questions and responses — even though Mueller is no longer an employee of DOJ. As PBS recently noted, “That’s very important, because White House lawyers have stopped people like Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director, from answering some questions.”
There’s also the possibility that Trump, in addition to his petulant tweets and whining about his own treatment, responds to Mueller’s testimony by following through on another threat he’s long dangled: pardoning those jailed as a result of Mueller’s investigations. For instance, Trump has already mused aloud about potentially pardoning former campaign chair Paul Manafort, who helped lead Trump to the White House while secretly liaising with shadowy post-Soviet figures.
Of course, if Trump does finally follow through on the pardon, that frees up Congress to finally compel Manafort to testify — all of which would keep Mueller’s findings, and his own testimony about the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia, in the news that much longer.