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Democrats in Congress believe it’s “the most prepared-for hearing in the history of the institution,” as one aide told the PBS NewsHour.
Republicans are portraying it as the “closing arguments” in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and President Donald Trump’s conduct.
WATCH LIVE: Robert Mueller testifies before Congress
In the historic congressional hearings Wednesday with former special counsel Robert Mueller, viewers and voters will see a high-stakes duel between two parties, each firing at each another while circling a reluctant central character.
The hearing is unusual on multiple fronts, including the format. The House Judiciary Committee and House Intelligence Committeewill each get the chance to question Mueller, with the larger Judiciary Committee going first. That committee will get a total of roughly three hours for questions, evenly divided between lawmakers from both parties. That is enough time for every Republican — but not every Democrat — on the 41-member committee to get five minutes of questioning. More senior Democrats may yield time to more junior members to let them participate.
WATCH: All of the Mueller report’s major findings in less than 30 minutes
After a 30-minute break, during which staffers will sweep up one set of congressional placards and replace them with another, the House Intelligence Committee will get about two-and-a-half hours of time with Mueller. All 22 members of that committee are expected to get five minutes of questions.
Mueller made one thing clear in his first and only public statement on his report: He was not eager to testify before Congress about it.
In his nine-minute-long appearance summarizing his findings in May, Mueller told reporters that “beyond what I have said here today, and what is contained in our written work, I do not believe it is appropriate for me to speak further.”
Democrats disagree. They see his public testimony as critical and have spent months negotiating his appearance with Mueller and the Department of Justice.
WATCH: Mueller breaks silence to say report doesn’t clear Trump
Mueller plans to give an opening statement, his spokesperson confirmed to PBS NewsHour. In that statement, and throughout the hearing, the longtime law enforcement professional and former FBI chief plans to stick to the content of his report and not veer from it.
What does that mean? Congressional aides in both parties believe he’ll give short answers and that there’s no likelihood Mueller will muse on “what if” or “what did you leave out” kinds of questions. It is not clear if or how he will respond to inquiries about his internal decision-making, including his conversations with the attorney general as the report was being prepared to be released.
Democrats have been carefully preparing for the hearing, with members of the House Judiciary Committee holding mock question sessions. (Democrats on the Intelligence Committee would not indicate ahead of the hearing if they are doing similar preparation.)
WATCH: With Mueller testimony, can Democrats expect a ‘breakthrough moment’?
The Mueller report laid out some 10 incidents of potential obstruction by the president. Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are planning to focus on the five incidents they think are most important. Those are:
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., will play a key role in the Mueller hearings. File Photo by Alex Wroblewski/Reuters
Democrats believe that any other person, except a sitting president, would be indicted for obstruction of justice based on the evidence in the Mueller report. But the former special counsel did not make that leap in his report. Connecting those dots will be a primary Democratic goal.
The Intelligence Committee is known for its typically no-nonsense, courtroom-style approach to public hearings. Expect Democrats to proceed in that vein Wednesday. An aide familiar with the committee’s thinking told the NewsHour that while the first volume of the report — which deals with Russian interference in the election — is a natural focus for the committee, that will not necessarily be the only topic discussed at the hearing. The Mueller report points to multiple potential incidents where witnesses lied or potentially lied to the Intelligence Committee, acts that could be considered obstruction.
As for specifics, Democrats on the Intelligence Committee signaled ahead of the hearing they also plan to focus on another issue: how much the Trump campaign, and Trump himself, knew about Wikileaks’ plans to release documents that were stolen from Democratic officials by the Russians.
The White House told the NewsHour that it is not sending its own lawyer to the hearing, but cautioned that decision is subject to change.
Regardless of who is in the audience, the Department of Justice will be watching and reportedly has instructed Mueller that he must limit his answers and comments to what is specifically laid out in the report. Discussions of evidence or other elements of his investigation are “presumptively privileged” and therefore out-of-bounds, the agency warned, according to Politico.
Republicans on the two committees plan to leave the burden of proof on Democrats to prove that the president’s conduct was unlawful. They believe Mueller’s report did not reach that conclusion and that the former special counsel is unlikely Wednesday to say that it did.
The Republican members questioning Mueller on Wednesday have a wide variety of political styles and policy platforms. They include some of the most conservative and assertively pro-Trump members in Congress, like Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who is on the Judiciary Committee. But the GOP ranks also include some of the most moderate members of the caucus, like Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, a former intelligence officer.
The more aggressive Republicans are expected to ask Mueller about their largest concern: what they see as bias in the FBI’s initial Russia investigation, and whether Mueller or his team were biased as well.
The PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor contributed reporting.
Lisa Desjardins is a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, where she covers news from the U.S. Capitol while also traveling across the country to report on how decisions in Washington affect people where they live and work.
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