Robert Mueller’s top deputy will appear alongside him as his counsel for his highly-anticipated testimony on Wednesday, according to a committee source familiar with the preparations, a last-minute move that Republicans are panning as a breach of House rules that could jeopardize the hearings altogether.
Republicans immediately panned Mueller’s request to have Aaron Zebley with him as a break from their tentative hearing negotiations. Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, called the move a “stunt” and said it could “jeopardize whether tomorrow’s hearing complies with the rules of the House.”
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“If Democrats believe it is the special counsel’s responsibility to testify to his report, they have no ground for outsourcing that duty at the expense of our committee’s integrity,” Collins said.
Mueller spokesman Jim Popkin on Monday said he didn’t know yet who would be joining the former special counsel at the hearing, let alone if anyone would be seated with him at the witness table. Popkin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
Both Zebley and James Quarles, another Mueller deputy, were initially expected to testify before both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees behind closed doors, but those sessions were called off amid opposition from Attorney General William Barr.
Barr has said that Mueller’s deputies should not testify, and he suggested that the Justice Department would move to block them from appearing if the committees issued subpoenas to compel their testimony.
The move threatens to further inflame tensions between the Justice Department and House Democrats. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler on Tuesday blasted President Donald Trump’s Justice Department as “incredibly arrogant” for instructing Mueller to limit the scope of his scheduled testimony Wednesday before the Judiciary and Intelligence panels.
But the New York Democrat predicted that the Justice Department’s Monday directive would not affect Wednesday’s highly anticipated pair of hearings with the former special counsel.
“I don’t think it’s much of an impediment, simply because Bob Mueller had indicated repeatedly that he was going to do exactly that,” Nadler said on CNN. “I think it’s incredibly arrogant of the department to try to instruct him as to what to say. It’s a part of the ongoing cover-up by the administration to keep information away from the American people, but I think that it’s not going to have a real impact.”
Mueller has stated that his 448-page report “is my testimony” and that he does not intend to speak about topics that were not already made public, presenting Democrats with a challenge when Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary and Intelligence panels.
And on Monday, the Justice Department told Mueller that his testimony “must remain within the boundaries of your public report” because the president has asserted executive privilege over the investigation’s underlying evidence, POLITICO first reported.
Nadler said on Tuesday that Democratic lawmakers have “been operating under the assumption that he’ll do essentially what he said — he’ll stay more or less within the bounds of the report.” But the chairman also said Mueller “does not have to comply” with the Justice Department’s directives.
“He doesn’t work for them,” Nadler said, “and that letter asks things that are beyond the power of the agency to ask even if he still worked for them.”
Despite the Justice Department’s letter to Mueller, it is unlikely that the department will insist on having a lawyer in the room during Mueller’s testimony to lodge objections to certain questions — essentially relying on Mueller to self-police his remarks. Mueller is known to strictly adhere to Justice Department guidelines, and Democrats do not expect him to deviate from that posture.
In May, Trump asserted executive privilege over Mueller’s entire report and underlying materials. The move came after the Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena for the unredacted report and all evidence underpinning it, and the Justice Department’s defiance of that subpoena led the panel to hold Barr in contempt of Congress.
Democrats are eager to ask Mueller several questions about his investigation and his legal conclusions, including whether he would have charged Trump with obstruction of justice if he were not the president — a reference to Justice Department policy that prohibits the indictment of a sitting president. While Mueller is unlikely to answer that question directly, Democrats say there are other ways to illuminate Mueller’s decision not to formally accuse the president of committing a crime.
The Judiciary Committee is expected to focus on five specific episodes of potential obstruction of justice — ones that, according to Mueller, met all three elements required for an obstruction charge.
House Democrats are planning an all-out messaging blitz over the next few days, blanketing social media with excerpts of Mueller’s report and real-time clips from the hearing. It’s an effort to amplify any of the material Mueller gives them and line it up with the most damaging details of his report.
Democrats have also put together a five-page set of talking points for their colleagues who aren’t as deeply immersed in the Mueller report, distilling Mueller’s dense findings into a digestible summary they can use to help spread the caucus-wide message.
Darren Samuelsohn and Quint Forgey contributed to this report.