Mueller to testify to Congress in open session about his investigation

FILE - In this March 24, 2019 photo, then-special counsel Robert Mueller walks past the White House, after attending St. John's Episcopal Church for morning services, in Washington. Mueller will testify publicly before House panels on July 17 after being subpoenaed. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

Washington • Former special counsel Robert Mueller will testify to Congress in a public session next month about his investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump, a reluctant witness long sought by House Democrats.

The House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, in a late-night announcement Tuesday, said that, “pursuant to a subpoena,” Mueller has agreed to appear before both panels on July 17. Mueller, who oversaw the 22-month investigation, is perhaps the one individual from whom lawmakers and the nation have been wanting to hear the most.

"We are pleased that the American people will hear directly from special counsel Mueller," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has pushed back against calls to impeach Trump. "Our national security is being threatened, and the American people deserve answers."

Mueller will testify in back-to-back hearings before the House Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and the House Intelligence Committee, led by Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif.

The long-awaited testimony comes as nearly 80 House Democrats have called for launching impeachment proceedings against Trump, arguing that he has ignored the Constitution that he took an oath to defend while repeatedly refusing to cooperate with congressional investigations.

Impeachment proponents hope Mueller's testimony will increase public support for ousting the president. At the very least, his testimony is certain to provide the headline-grabbing, made-for-cable-television testimony that Democrats have been craving since the release of the 448-page, redacted report on April 18.

Still, some Democrats are already trying to set expectations. Privately, some Democrats fear Mueller's much anticipated testimony won't live up to the hype that's been built around him for months.

"I don't want to set unrealistic expectations," Schiff said in an interview after the announcement. "We want to hear what he has to say, and I think it's very important for the American people to hear from him as well. But there are a great many other witnesses that the American people need to hear from in addition to Bob Mueller."

The rarely seen Mueller spoke publicly in May but would neither clear nor accuse Trump of obstructing justice, leaving room for Congress to make a call where he would not and fueling impeachment demands among some Democrats. It was his first public remarks on the case since he concluded his investigation. Mueller said that if his office "had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so," and he noted that the Constitution "requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing."

Over the course of a nearly two-year investigation, the special counsel charged 34 people, including 26 Russian nationals, and secured guilty pleas from seven, including several high-level Trump campaign and administration officials. The investigation concluded in March, and the following month the Justice Department released the office's 448-page report documenting its work.

The report said investigators found insufficient evidence to show a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the election and reached no conclusion on whether Trump obstructed justice - despite laying out a series of episodes of the president apparently seeking to stymie the investigation. Mueller's team wrote that it was bound by Justice Department policy that forbids the indictment of a sitting president from deciding or alleging - even privately - that Trump had committed a crime.

The lawyer listed on the subpoena for Mueller, along with Mueller's top assistants in the now defunct special counsel's office, did not immediately respond to phone and email messages. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

Mueller is no longer a Justice Department employee, and after the special counsel's office formally closed last month, he and his personal representatives had been negotiating directly with the committee, people familiar with the matter said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private deliberations.

The former FBI director had preferred not to testify publicly, hoping his report would speak for itself, the people said. Mueller himself said at a news conference last month - his first and only such event as special counsel - that he hoped the appearance would be "the only time that I will speak to you in this manner," and, if pressed to testify, he "would not go beyond our report."

But those who have know Mueller long said it was virtually impossible he would ignore or reject a subpoena, and they expected that if the committees were to get even to the brink of such an action, Mueller would agree to appear.

Still, Mueller is unlikely to answer Democrats' biggest question: whether he or his team felt there was sufficient evidence to charge Trump with obstruction, were he not president. The special counsel's report said making such a determination, even privately, would be inappropriate because of Justice Department policy that prevents the indictment of a sitting president, combined with concerns about alleging wrongdoing that will not be tested in court.

But even his repeating aspects of his report in a public setting could be politically damaging for Trump - exposing his office's findings to sections of the country they might not have already read them, and creating a televised spectacle with which the commander in chief will have to grapple.

Republicans made clear the hearing will be a test for Mueller - though some of their GOP colleagues had also called for him to appear.

"I just think it's more political theater," said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a Trump ally who also offered a warning to Mueller: "But, Mr. Mueller better be prepared. I mean, there's a lot more questions that Republicans have than Democrats."

He added: "This is the Democrats trying to resurrect a Russia collusion narrative that the American people are tired of. And yet, Mr. Mueller has not been subject to cross examination. He will be now."

Trump's attorneys, meanwhile, called Mueller's credibility into question and suggested Mueller should also be prepared to answer questions about anti-Trump text messages exchanged between two former FBI agents.

"The first thing he needs to answer is his own conflicts of interest," Jay Sekulow, Trump's attorney, said of Mueller on Fox News Channel's "Hannity" on Tuesday night. He later added: "The whole report is incoherent."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., likewise argued that "I think it'll blow up in their face."

Democrats, meanwhile, welcomed the news. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., thanked both chairmen on Twitter "for securing Mueller's testimony."

“To the naysayers who have doubted the effectiveness of our committee chairs, this shows measurable and real progress in our methodical and assertive approach in holding the President accountable,” he said.

The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.