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How lawmakers and the White House are preparing for Mueller’s testimony

Members of Congress aren’t the only ones seeking answers from Robert Mueller in his long-awaited congressional testimony. Viewers from across the country -- and beyond -- submitted their questions to the NewsHour. Lisa Desjardins walks through some of them and reports on how lawmakers will handle the hearings, while Yamiche Alcindor joins Amna Nawaz to discuss the perspective from the White House.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    It took two years, 448 pages, and then just a nine-minute speech. But, tomorrow, former special counsel Robert Mueller will face questions from lawmakers.

    Members of Congress aren't the only ones with questions, though.

    Lisa Desjardins is back now to run through what viewers like you have been asking.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This room is empty today, but, tomorrow, it will be full of people and of questions for Robert Mueller. There are many, of course.

    Our viewers alone sent us nearly 2,000 examples of what they would ask.

    Those questions came from every corner of the country. Our viewers wrote in from nearly every state, places large and small. A few of them came from other countries too, Canada, the U.K., Taiwan.

    So, what are the key issues for Mr. Mueller? What matters most?

    Let's start with one of the biggest issues over tomorrow's hearing, a question we heard again and again.

  • Man:

    If Mr. Mueller wasn't bound by the OLC guidelines…

  • Woman:

    … that a sitting president could not be indicted…

  • Man:

    … would you have recommended the indictment?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    OLC is an abbreviation that may come up a lot. It's the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, and it sets many of the ground rules for the agency.

    This key question surrounds what may be the most quoted line from the report: "While this report doesn't conclude that the president committed a crime, it also doesn't exonerate him."

  • Robert Mueller:

    If we had had confidence that the president clearly didn't commit a crime, we would have said so.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Why no conclusion? Mueller didn't say directly, but pointed out an opinion from the OLC concludes that a sitting president may not be prosecuted.

    This has been an overriding question for Democrats since the day the report came out, when the House Democratic Caucus leader joined our Judy Woodruff.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You don't accept what he said, that he couldn't reach a conclusion about whether or not there was obstruction of justice committed?

  • Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y.:

    To me, that's not the end. That's just the beginning of what needs to come next.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Another overarching issue.

    Here's Leslie Smith of Oakland California.

  • Leslie Smith:

    Were you at any time impeded in your investigation?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is fascinating, because the most damning parts of Mueller's report lay out evidence that the president tried to end or impede Mueller's investigation itself.

    Democrats, led by New York's Jerry Nadler, who runs the Judiciary Committee, have told us questions about the president impeding Mueller will be a major focus, including testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn and former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who told Mueller that the president tried to fire or limit the special counsel.

    Be ready to hear about two other people in the Trump universe as well, Paul Manafort, who was Trump's campaign chairman, and Michael Cohen, who was his longtime lawyer and fixer. Both were part of Mueller's investigation. Both are now in prison.

    And, in his report, Mueller laid out evidence that the president tried to tamper with their testimony as witnesses by offering potential pardons.

    The time with Mueller will be evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and there we may see more questions about Mueller himself. We go to Hawaii and Kevin Doyle.

  • Kevin Doyle:

    After Comey was fired, did you ever inquire about or seek to be appointed the FBI director?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The president and Republicans have long said Mueller and his team were biased, including this assertion:

  • President Donald Trump:

    He wanted to be the FBI director, and I said no.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The Mueller report disputes this charge, citing former White House adviser Steve Bannon as saying that Mueller didn't come in looking for the job at the FBI.

  • Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga.:

    The corrupt cabal that we see of Strzok, Page, McCabe, Comey, and others.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Republicans, led by Georgia's Doug Collins on the Judiciary Committee, may ask about other charges of bias as well, and point to something other than obstruction.

  • Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga.:

    He also made it very clear there was no collusion.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Mueller concluded there was no evidence of conspiracy by the Trump campaign, but there will be a number of questions about the specifics, the contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians, including Russian operatives.

    That raises another key set of questions about what Russia did.

    Joan Murdoch of Pennsylvania put it well:

  • Joan Murdoch:

    Do you think the public debate over section two, the obstruction section, has overshadowed the detail and importance of section one, which is all about how the Russians interfered in our election?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Part one of the report, about the Russian interference, will likely come up the most in part two of the hearing, when the House Intelligence Committee takes over.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    Thank you. We will come to order.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Expect many questions about what Mueller learned about Russian activities in general, but also expect that he may not be able to answer some questions publicly.

    This section of the report is the most highly redacted, because of investigations still under way.

    Lawmakers each will have five minutes, at the most, to question Mueller. That's about as long as this story. So they will each have to choose a focus.

    Some would ask about the president.

  • Woman:

    I would like to ask Mr. Mueller why he didn't subpoena the president?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Or the attorney general.

  • Donald Alexander:

    Mr. Barr said that you and he had a disagreement regarding the law of the production of your report. What was the nature of that disagreement?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And some about how Mueller himself is doing.

  • Woman:

    Has the spotlight on you caused you any stress or health issues?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Still others about the point of this report.

  • Man:

    After the findings, do you feel this report deserves all the time and effort that's been spent by our politicians?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Scores of questions for one man who will be back in a very hot spotlight tomorrow.

    I'm Lisa Desjardins for the "PBS NewsHour."

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let's examine now how the White House is getting ready for Mueller's testimony tomorrow with Yamiche Alcindor.

    Yamiche, let's jump right in.

    There's been a lot of talk about the potential impact of that Mueller testimony. What do we expect him to say?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    In his testimony before the House, Robert Mueller wants to stick to the confines of the 448-page report that he and his team compiled.

    A spokesperson for Robert Mueller told me he wants the stay within — quote — "the four walls of the report."

    He is also — Robert Mueller is also going to be wanting to enter into the congressional record the actual report to really underline and double down on that point.

    That said, I'm told he is going to have a short opening statement. He's been preparing with people that worked for him at the special counsel's office to really figure out and hone in on what he can and can't talk about and his own settings.

    He also wants to really be thinking about how to not go beyond the report. And, as a result, what's going to be interesting is, after that short opening statement, Democrats and Republicans are going to be posing questions.

    Democrats are going to be trying to push him a little bit past the report. They're going to be trying to figure out why he didn't subpoena the president., also why he didn't make a decision on obstruction of justice.

    Republicans are going to be having their own points. And I'm told that Republicans are likely going to hone in on his hiring process and why he may have hired people that didn't like the president or that donated to Hillary Clinton.

    Democrats tell me there is not going to be any surprises that they expect. But, that said, we got a really big surprise today, of course, the day before Robert Mueller is supposed to testify. And that surprise was that Robert Mueller wanted to enter as a witness and have a sworn witness next to him as Aaron Zebley.

    He is a longtime aid to Robert Mueller and is described as a deputy special counsel. Robert Mueller wanted Aaron to speak next to him because I'm told he wanted Zebley to talk about personnel issues, to talk about the hiring process, and essentially take some pressure off of Robert Mueller.

    The committee, of course, said, no, you cannot do that. As a result, Aaron Zebley is going to be actually sitting alongside Robert Mueller as his counsel. So he's still going to be able to talk Aaron Zebley and ask him questions and possibly confer if there's some things that he wants to talk about that may be just a little bit outside the purview of the report.

    But the fact that we got this really big surprise the day before the testimony says that there could be fireworks that we don't see coming.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Some last-minute developments behind the scene there.

    There's also the issue of this letter, Yamiche, that the Justice Department sent to Mueller offering him some guidance on the testimony. How could what they laid out affect what he does or doesn't say?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The Department of Justice is really leaning in on Robert Mueller to stick to what's in the report.

    And Robert Mueller agrees. He wants to stick to what's in the report. But the Department of Justice sent a letter just to make that crystal clear to Robert Mueller.

    And here's some things that they told him. They told Robert Mueller that — quote — "Any testimony must remain within the boundaries of your public report, because matters — matters within the scope of your investigation were covered by executive privilege."

    The letter also cautioned against discussing — quote — "redacted portions" and testifying about — quote — "information protected by law enforcement, deliberative process, attorney work product, and presidential communications privileges."

    And last, which is a key part for the president, Democrats say, Robert Mueller, they said, shouldn't talk about — quote — "uncharged individuals."

    Now, Democrats will say the president is an uncharged individual. And even though Robert Mueller and the Department of Justice are on the same page, the DOJ sending this letter shows that they're concerned.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, finally, Yamiche, what about the White House?

    The president has said he might watch some part of the hearing. What is at stake for President Trump tomorrow?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    This is going to be a big televised event, largely focused on whether or not President Trump directed people to lie and whether or not he was trying to turn down and close down the investigation, as Robert Mueller was — was really carrying out his duties.

    So, Democrats have been telling me over and over again, a lot of people don't read the book, but they watch the movie. So Democrats say, even if Robert Mueller says nothing new, they're hoping that millions of new people — millions of new voters, rather, that they will hear Robert Mueller talking about the president, what Democrats say is bad behavior coming out of the White House.

    That said, I recently talked to the president and put the question to him. I said, Mr. President, are you concerned about Robert Mueller testifying? Are you going to watch it?

    President Trump says he's not planning to watch the entire Robert Mueller testimony, but he will watch a little bit of it. He said that he's not concerned, and he thinks that Democrats are really wasting their time here, and that it's really going to come down to him looking like a president that's being harassed by Democrats or going too far.

    That said, the White House is still concerned. They're going to be really focused in on this tomorrow, as is, of course, all of Washington.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Our own Yamiche Alcindor is going to be covering that hearing tomorrow.

    Thank you, Yamiche.

    And join us tomorrow morning. Our live coverage of the Mueller hearing starts at 7:40 a.m. Eastern online on our Web site at PBS.org/NewsHour and on our social media channels, like YouTube.

    Then, tune in right here at 8:30 a.m. on your local PBS station, when Judy Woodruff leads our live coverage of the former special counsel testifying before two House committees.

    Check your local listings.

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