House Democrats agree that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III has a duty to testify publicly about the findings in his report, despite his clear reluctance to do so.
But how far they are willing to go to force him into the witness chair remains to be seen.
After Mueller’s only public statement about the investigation he led into Russian interference in the 2016 election, party leaders are grappling with whether to engage in a potentially drawn-out battle for his appearance while they are fighting the Trump administration on multiple fronts.
At stake is the singular testimony of a man who remained silent throughout his 22-month investigation, someone who Democrats say can uniquely draw attention to what they view as the president’s efforts to undercut the investigation.
So far, after two months of negotiations over a possible appearance before Congress, Mueller’s staff and Hill investigators are at an impasse. On Wednesday, Mueller made his preference clear, saying: “I hope and expect this to be the only time that I will speak to you in this manner.”
Some senior Democrats have considered the idea of subpoenaing Mueller, but lawmakers also are reluctant to take a step that could make them seem overly aggressive toward a nonpartisan figure — or create the impression that Mueller has done something wrong.
Still, the prospect of just letting Mueller step away from his post without answering a single question is viewed as untenable by many Democratic lawmakers.
“I’m not surprised that he wants this to be the end of it because it’s been a tiring road for him, I’m sure — emotionally draining,” said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who insists Mueller must testify. “But the issue at stake here is one of really transcendent importance in terms of our elections being undermined and/or our president having committed obstruction of justice.”
Hoyer said a subpoena may be just what Mueller needs so he can argue that his back is to the wall: “From my perspective, a subpoena is nothing adversarial.”
Democrats say Mueller has an obligation to Americans to answer questions about Russia’s interference in the U.S. election and the 10 potential instances of obstruction of justice he laid out in his report.
The public overwhelmingly wants Mueller to testify. A CBS poll released May 22, a week before his public statement, found that nearly three-quarters of Americans — including 56 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats — think he should answer questions before Congress. After Mueller’s nine-minute news conference dominated news coverage Wednesday, many Democrats are more certain now that his appearance before Congress would, at minimum, put renewed focus on his findings.
“We will have Mr. Mueller’s testimony,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) in an interview with WNYC radio Friday. “I think it’s very important that he testify before the American people even if he doesn’t say anything beyond what was said there, because the attorney general and the president and others are lying all the time about what was in the report. And it’s very important that he, to a television audience and to the American people, state it, that he answer questions about it — even if there is no new information.”
The decision appears to be up to the former special counsel, who is no longer a Justice Department employee. Attorney General William P. Barr has said repeatedly he would not prevent Mueller from testifying.
In early May, the White House asserted executive privilege over the full, unredacted version of Mueller’s report and underlying materials. But Mueller said publicly this week that if he were compelled to testify, he would not discuss anything beyond the contents of the report that has been publicly released.
His apparent unwillingness to testifying before lawmakers has created a conundrum for House Democrats, who had hoped Mueller would be the one bright spot in an otherwise stormy and frustrating battle with the White House about congressional oversight, given his status as special counsel and the interest of some Republicans in hearing from him.
“We don’t want to revictimize the victim here, right?” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a Judiciary Committee member and 2020 presidential candidate, of subpoenaing Mueller. “He’s been victimized by the president for the last two years, and you don’t want to treat him like he’s done something wrong, but we do need to hear from him.”
The debate among Democrats comes as the president has renewed his personal attacks against Mueller, repeating discredited allegations of conflicts of interest to accuse him of an anti-Trump bias.
Mueller associates have conveyed to Hill investigators that the former FBI director’s reluctance to testify is driven in part by his unwillingness to appear in any way political, according to people familiar with the conversations.
Democrats on the Hill appear likely to take their time in deciding how far to go to obtain Mueller’s appearance there. Aides say that as recently as Friday they continued to negotiate with Mueller through the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs. A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
Meanwhile, House Democrats are pursuing separate investigations without Mueller. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is spearheading an oversight strategy, to be rolled out in the coming days, that will include legislative provisions meant to hold Trump accountable for his actions as president. Democratic aides from several committees met over the Memorial Day recess to discuss legislation that will address “Trump’s abuses and safeguard our democracy from future attacks,” according to a leadership aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Before Mueller made his statement Wednesday, negotiations between House Democrats and his team had been inconclusive. At one point, Mueller asked that his testimony be given entirely in closed session, according to people familiar with the conversations. Then he was willing to give a 20-minute opening statement in public before moving to a closed session with members — and would allow the transcript be released.
But Democrats wanted Mueller to answer questions in an open session and are even more determined to seek that after seeing how his brief statement resonated.
“It proved there is merit in his testimony,” said one Democratic aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He said almost nothing that hadn’t already been said in the report, and yet the power of him saying it out loud on camera is just undeniable.”
At the same time, however, some Democrats privately worry that Mueller’s testimony could be a bust. Expectations, some aides say, are so high that the headlines could easily shift to focus on how Mueller failed to deliver the punch Democrats needed.
Others contend that the box for Mueller’s testimony was partially checked when he spoke publicly Wednesday.
Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a law enforcement veteran on the judiciary panel, said she sympathized with Mueller. “In law enforcement, nothing’s worse than speaking out in public,” she said.
But Demings added that, for many Americans who do not have time to read the 448-page report, hearing directly from the special counsel would have an impact.
“It is important for the American people who are busy. They’re trying to just make a living and keep a roof over their head. They’re not going to read the report,” she said. “But I think it’s important for them to hear in special counsel Mueller’s own words” his findings.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) has echoed the demand for Mueller to testify in public, arguing on NPR that “it’s vitally important the country hear from all the significant witnesses, and that includes Mueller.”
But a decision about a subpoena “will be made above my pay grade,” Schiff said, deferring to Pelosi to settle on a strategy.
Swalwell predicted that Mueller eventually would appear voluntarily and that a subpoena would not be needed: “He’s a patriot, and he’s not going to disobey a request for Congress.”
Rank-and-file Democrats on Schiff’s panel say that if all else fails, they can compel the special counsel and his deputies to appear for private meetings to discuss the counterintelligence aspect of the report — something that would have to happen behind closed doors because of its classified nature.
“It would help a lot more to testify, especially before the intel committee, so we can talk about classified material,” Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), said in an interview. “Special counsel, with all due respect, there’s more there, there.”
Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee also want to hear from Mueller as their panel’s bipartisan probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election is nearing an end.
“Whether it’s Mueller or one of his top assistants — the main thing is to get the counterintelligence evidence that went into the report,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the committee’s vice-chairman, said in an interview. “Did Mueller have access to sources and access to tools that we didn’t have? The more we can see that evidence, the more we can, hopefully, better refine our recommendations in terms of how Congress can act.”
Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.