Politics

Mueller’s Testimony: Inside White House Preparations

The Republican National Committee is setting up a “war room” monitoring the back-and-forth exchanges between Mueller and the five dozen lawmakers he’ll face in both hearings, a committee staff member told me. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel will be one of a series of surrogates putting out statements and commentary as the hearings play out, with Republican aides using social media to amplify a pro-Trump message and booking sympathetic allies for TV and radio appearances, the staff member said. Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s main outside attorneys who defended him in the Russia investigation, will be watching the testimony unfold live. “We’ll respond as appropriate,” Sekulow told me. But “I don’t expect any new revelations. [Mueller in a public statement in May] said his testimony is his report, and his report is his testimony. I don’t think he’ll go beyond that.”

Yet Democrats seem largely unfazed, believing that televised hearings are a surefire way to galvanize public opinion. In their push to bring the Mueller report to life, as some Democrats have put it, it’s easy to imagine lawmakers asking some version of this question: Mr. Mueller, did President Trump engage in behavior that rises to the level of criminal conduct, and is it your view that he can only be properly held accountable through impeachment proceedings?

The White House is betting that Mueller would side-step such a query, sticking to the Delphic formulation that he used in his rare public appearance in May, when he said that “if we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” Yet if Mueller’s answer edges even a little bit close to “Yes” on both questions, it would mean trouble for Trump, reinvigorating the debate in Congress over the president’s fate and putting more pressure on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to accommodate the faction of her caucus that wants him ousted. As it is, few people seem to have actually read the Mueller report, upping the chances that Mueller will be presenting brand-new information to at least some Americans watching. A poll taken for CNN in late April, about a week after the report was released, showed that 75 percent of respondents hadn’t read any of it, and only 3 percent had read the entire thing.

One message that Trump’s allies are promoting in advance is that Democrats are wasting time and taxpayer money by trotting out the former special counsel. “There’s no apple left, but Democrats are still trying to get bites at it,” Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, told me.

It’s futile to look for consistency in Trump’s portrayal of the Mueller report, because a rich contradiction lies at the heart of his approach. When he believes something is exculpatory, he casts it as hard fact. Anything else he dismisses as the work of a vengeful prosecutor. Ahead of Mueller’s testimony, Trump clearly feels threatened by what might come next and has been lashing out. In his Oval Office remarks on Monday, the president once again accused Mueller of bias, an argument he could very well test today. He alleged that he turned down Mueller for the job of FBI director, which became vacant after he fired James Comey. And he revived his accusation that Mueller was still stewing over a “business relationship” that went sour, an apparent reference to Mueller’s attempt eight years ago to get his membership fee refunded from Trump National Golf Club in northern Virginia. “He’s got big conflicts with me,” Trump said.


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