Mueller’s Testimony: 5 Things Congress May Press Him On This Wednesday

July 22, 2019
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by Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist

Special Counsel Robert Mueller speaks on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP)

Beyond a brief statement in May, Robert Mueller has made no public comments about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice.

That’s expected to change this Wednesday.

Following a subpoena from House Democrats, Mueller will appear before the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee on July 24. Mueller said he won’t offer any information not included in his 448-page report, but lawmakers are expected to press him regardless. Democrats hope Mueller’s spoken account of the incidents he investigated will stir stronger public outrage than his written one; Republicans believe it could bring the Mueller chapter of Trump’s presidency to a close.

Mueller’s two-year investigation detailed a major Russian effort to sway the U.S. election. Mueller did not find that Trump or his campaign criminally conspired with the Russian government in its efforts to influence the 2016 election on his behalf. But Mueller said he could not exonerate the president when it came to the question of obstruction of justice, and the second volume of his report details repeated efforts by Trump to thwart the special counsel’s probe.

The latter portion of the report has been the subject of much controversy. In Mueller’s remarks in the spring, which some lawmakers interpreted as an “impeachment referral,” he said that charging the president was “not an option” for his team, citing Justice Department policy. However, in summarizing the report to the public prior to its release, Attorney General William Barr said that he and then-deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein determined that the investigation offered insufficient evidence to charge Trump with obstruction of justice, regardless of DOJ policy on whether such charges could be brought.

FRONTLINE’s 2019 documentary The Mueller Investigation, from filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team, explored many of the issues surrounding the special counsel’s probe. Ahead of Mueller’s public testimony, go inside five moments and issues lawmakers may focus on.

1.) Comey, Trump and “Loyalty”

The first week after Trump was sworn into office, then-FBI director James Comey arrived at the White House for dinner with the president to find a table set for two. As this excerpt recounts, Comey said the president asked for his “loyalty” multiple times at the private dinner. The Mueller report notes that the dinner happened the day after the Justice Department shared “concerns” with the White House involving contacts between then-national security advisor Michael Flynn and then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Though Trump denied asking for loyalty, the report states that “substantial evidence” backs up Comey’s description.

2.) On Michael Flynn: “I Hope You Can Let This Go”

Just over two weeks later, Comey said the president sought another private meeting with him. As the below excerpt recounts, Comey said Trump pressed him to “ease up” on Flynn — who was under investigation by the FBI — saying, “He’s a really good guy.” Trump disputed Comey’s account of the meeting. But the Mueller report again said that “substantial evidence corroborates Comey’s account,” and stated that “the circumstances of the conversation show that the President was asking Comey to close the FBI’s investigation into Flynn.”

3.) Why Did Trump Fire Comey?

After firing Comey on May 9, 2017, the president and his representatives pointed to a memo from Rosenstein that found fault with Comey’s leadership around the Hillary Clinton email investigation. But then, in an NBC News interview, the president offered a different account: he had made up his mind to fire Comey before receiving the memo, in part due to frustration over “this Russia thing.” After examining the saga, the Mueller report says that “in fact, substantial evidence indicates that the catalyst for the president’s decision to fire Comey was Comey’s unwillingness to publicly state that the President was not personally under investigation [in the Russia probe], despite the President’s repeated requests that Comey make such an announcement.”

4.) Michael Cohen and Donald Trump’s Interactions

At a briefing last Friday, a judiciary committee staffer indicated that Democratic committee members may question Mueller about potential witness tampering efforts between the White House and Michael Cohen. This excerpt explores how Cohen became Trump’s “fixer,” and why the president was so concerned when the FBI turned its attention to him. “It’s a whole other avenue of potential exposure, criminal exposure, to the president,” former assistant attorney general Jack Goldsmith told FRONTLINE. “This was clearly someone who was a very close adviser and attorney to the president, and he was especially involved in what might be seen as the president’s shady business.”

5.) Peter Strzok’s Texts

From the very start of Mueller’s probe, many of the president’s allies in Congress accused the FBI of anti-Trump bias. The release of text messages between top FBI agent Peter Strzok and an FBI attorney inflamed those accusations. (“We’ll stop it,” one text said of then-candidate Trump’s potential election.) Strzok, who was removed from Mueller’s team and eventually fired from the FBI, said his personal opinions didn’t affect his work, and a DOJ inspector general’s report found no evidence that they had.

Mueller’s investigation would ultimately result in 34 indictments. For more on how the Mueller inquiry and the events surrounding it became a central thread in Trump’s presidency, stream The Mueller Investigation in full. And for more on Russian election interference, stream Putin’s Revenge. Both films are available at pbs.org/FRONTLINE, on-demand, and on the PBS Video App.

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