What to expect in Robert Mueller’s testimony about the Trump-Russia investigation

Special counsel Robert Mueller walks with his wife Ann Mueller on March 24, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Special counsel Robert Mueller walks with his wife, Ann Mueller, on March 24, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

This week, for the first and perhaps only time, former special counsel Robert Mueller will answer questions about his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether President Donald Trump obstructed justice — but it’s unclear how much he’ll say.

On Wednesday, Mueller will testify before the House Judiciary Committee beginning at 8:30 am Eastern, and then before the House Intelligence Committee starting at noon Eastern. Questioning in the first three-hour session will largely focus on obstruction of justice, while the second two-hour session will focus on Russian interference with the 2016 election.

The testimony will be aired on networks such as NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and C-SPAN. Vox will also live-stream it on Twitter and Facebook, and we’ll embed a live stream here when one is available.

Mueller’s testimony comes nearly four months after he completed his investigation, nearly three months after the government released a redacted version of his report, and nearly two months after he spoke publicly about his findings. It’s also at a time when Mueller’s findings have faded from the political conversation somewhat, as the scandal many Democrats once hoped could spur impeachment proceedings and bring down President Trump has not done either.

But many Democrats (and the occasional Republican) have argued that Mueller’s findings were in fact quite damning, and deserve far more public attention and scrutiny. And they think the major public spectacle of Mueller’s testimony could be better than a 448-page report at delivering those facts to the public. Even if, as Mueller has previously suggested, his testimony will only be repeating what’s in the report already.

Why Mueller is testifying to Congress

“I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak about this matter,” Mueller said when he addressed the public for the first (and so far only) time in May, just before he stepped down as special counsel. But House Democrats weren’t satisfied — they subpoenaed Mueller in June, in an effort to force him to answer questions before key committees. Despite Mueller’s reluctance, negotiations ensued, and the sides eventually struck a deal for the testimony that will take place Wednesday.

In his May statement, Mueller said that “any testimony from this office would not go beyond our report” — that is, he might try to answer every question by simply restating what his report says, or declining to answer. The Justice Department also sent Mueller a letter urging him to stick to the report itself, and even claiming that talking about internal investigative decisions in more detail could fall under executive privilege.

Mueller’s testimony may not reveal new bombshells. However, it will at the very least provide a high-profile setting for him to restate the findings in his report (which, though it’s a best-seller, many people haven’t read — as of early May, a CNN poll of US adults found only 3 percent of respondents read the whole thing). And it should refocus media attention on those findings. Namely:

  • That the Russian government tried to help Trump win the 2016 election
  • That the Trump campaign was eager to benefit from hackings targeting Democrats
  • That Trump’s campaign advisers had a host of shady ties to Russia
  • That despite this, the investigation did not establish a conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia to interfere with the election
  • That six former Trump advisers committed crimes by lying to investigators
  • And that Trump, once he became president, tried again and again to impede the investigation — though Mueller decided not to outright reach a conclusion on whether this constituted criminal obstruction of justice

What Mueller found on obstruction of justice

The first testimony session, before the Judiciary Committee, will focus on the portion of the report that focused on obstruction of justice. That’s likely because half of the report has by far more material about Trump personally.

There are two broad areas members of Congress can focus on here — questions on Mueller’s factual findings about Trump’s potential obstruction of justice, and questions about his legal analysis and DOJ’s behind-the-scenes decision-making in this fraught probe.

Mueller’s factual findings on Trump’s efforts to impede the investigation

The special counsel examined 10 different instances of possible obstruction; among the key events Mueller collected facts and evidence on are:

  • Trump tried to get then-FBI Director James Comey to drop an investigation into whether Michael Flynn lied about his Russia contacts (but Comey didn’t do it).
  • Trump then fired Comey.
  • Trump tried several times to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse his recusal from oversight of the Russia investigation or to rein in the probe (which Sessions didn’t do).
  • Trump directed then-White House counsel Don McGahn to have Mueller fired (but McGahn didn’t carry this out). Trump later tried to get McGahn to falsely deny this took place.
  • Trump and his legal team urged key figures in the probe (like Paul Manafort) not to “flip,” attacked those who did flip (like Michael Cohen), and sent messages to Flynn when he was about to flip.

Much of this clearly seems to be aimed at trying to impede the Russia investigation. And while Mueller wrote that the evidence doesn’t establish that all this “was designed to cover up a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia,” he added that Trump could well have had other corrupt motives (such as preventing politically damaging information or separate crimes from coming to light).

This fact pattern was stunning enough that after then-Republican Rep. Justin Amash reviewed this part of the report, he felt compelled to push for Trump’s impeachment. (He has since left the Republican Party.) But many of these details still aren’t widely known, so Democrats are hoping to publicize them more in these hearings.

Mueller’s legal analysis and the Justice Department’s decision-making on obstruction

Then there’s the special counsel’s analysis and decision-making. Mueller’s report examined whether those above Trump actions met the three requirements for whether something can be considered criminal obstruction of justice — whether it involved an obstructive act, whether it had a connection to a pending proceeding, and whether Trump’s intent was corrupt.

But throughout, Mueller avoided coming to an explicit conclusion on whether any of these individual acts — or the combination of them — qualified as criminal obstruction of justice. He said he determined to do this because the Justice Department has held that a sitting president can’t be indicted. “We determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes,” he writes.

Oddly, however, Mueller also went out of his way to point out that he did not have “confidence” that Trump did not obstruct justice — and claimed that if Trump indeed “clearly did not commit obstruction of justice,” he would say so. The implication was that the evidence against Trump on obstruction shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Attorney General William Barr, however, did end up dismissing it: After Mueller submitted his report, Barr quickly proclaimed that according to his review of the evidence, Trump’s behavior wasn’t criminal.

This rather unusual sequence of events — Mueller’s decision not to issue a prosecutorial judgment, his decision to say he didn’t have “confidence” in Trump’s innocence, and Barr’s clearing of the president — raises many questions. So Democrats may well press Mueller for information about behind-the-scenes decision-making here, and whether he felt there was political interference by Barr.

What Mueller found on Russian interference and the Trump campaign

In Mueller’s second testimony session of the day, before the House Intelligence Committee, he’ll be pressed about the Russian effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential election and whether any Trump associates were involved in that effort.

Russian election interference: social media propaganda and email hacking

Per Mueller, Russia criminally interfered in the election in two main ways. First, there was a Russian effort to spread social media propaganda that could hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign and help Trump (as well as sow division in the United States). Second, Russian intelligence officers hacked leading Democrats’ emails and electronic documents, and later either posted them directly or had them provided to WikiLeaks.

But was anyone in the Trump campaign involved? “Ultimately, the investigation did not establish that the Campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities,” the Mueller report says.

Now, there is one big loose end involving Mueller’s findings about what happened in 2016. Heavily redacted sections of the report discuss whether Trump associates were involved in the dissemination of those hacked emails. This section discusses longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone’s contacts with WikiLeaks and, apparently, advance information Trump was told. However, Mueller will not be permitted to discuss that material, to avoid prejudicing Stone’s trial on charges of obstruction, making false statements, and witness tampering (which is scheduled for November). So it is not clear whether questioning on this topic will be fruitful.

The Trump campaign-Russia contacts

Beyond the specific election interference conspiracy, Mueller’s report contains a lengthy chronicle of the Russian government’s contacts with the Trump campaign — though none of these ended up being the basis for criminal charges. These include:

  • Michael Cohen made an effort, approved by Trump, to get the Russian government’s help advancing a project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. (Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about this effort.)
  • George Papadopoulos got a tip that the Russian government had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of emails, and had contacts with a Maltese professor and two Russian nationals. (Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about these contacts.)
  • Paul Manafort had various contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian national, during the campaign — he shared internal Trump polling data with Kilimnik and discussed the campaign’s strategy with him. (Manafort was convicted of financial crimes mostly related to his past Ukraine lobbying work.)
  • Carter Page made a trip to Moscow in July 2016, where he gave two speeches and met a Russian deputy prime minister and an official at a Russian oil company. (Mueller concluded that Page’s activities in Russia “were not fully explained” but didn’t charge him with any crimes.)
  • Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June 2016 in hopes of getting damaging information about Hillary Clinton. They did not, however, get useful information. (Mueller considered charging this as a campaign finance violation — an effort to get a thing of value from foreign nationals — but concluded there was insufficient evidence.)
  • After repeated requests from Trump, Michael Flynn reached out to Republican operative Peter Smith about trying to obtain Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails from Russian hackers. (The effort was unsuccessful, and Smith died by suicide in early 2017.)
  • During the transition period, Flynn reached out to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to urge him to respond with restraint to the outgoing Obama administration’s new sanctions. (Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about these statements.)

However, this volume of the report says relatively little about Trump himself. It does reveal that Trump had ambitions for a lucrative Russian business deal and was eager to “find” Clinton’s emails. But Mueller revealed no evidence that Trump was personally involved in or aware of most of those other shady contacts.

Overall, rather than any super-spy conspiracy involving the highest levels of the Trump campaign, the Mueller report seemed to tell a story of a series of disorganized contacts and missed opportunities.

None of it makes the Trump campaign look particularly good — and we can expect Democrats to hammer that point home. Expect Republicans, though, to hammer home the point that after a nearly two-year investigation, Mueller did not ultimately charge a conspiracy between any Trump official and any Russian to interfere with the 2016 election.