Mueller's testimony poses risk for Trump, but also Democrats

WASHINGTON (AP) — Robert Mueller's testimony before Congress will depend not so much on what he says, but that he's even saying it at all.

For Democrats, the special counsel's appearance Wednesday creates a moment many have been waiting for: Mueller finally speaking out, piercing the public consciousness about President Donald Trump's response to the Russia investigation and whether anything should be done about it.

The political stakes are high for Trump, but also for Democrats, who have spent the past two years pushing toward this day. As public attention has drifted and views have hardened, Democrats are counting on Americans hearing what most have not likely read — the stunning findings of Mueller's 448-page report .

"Let us listen, let us see where the facts will take us," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. "And then, we'll see what happens after that."

Yet there's a real possibility that Mueller may not bring clarity.

It took months to negotiate his appearance before Congress and he has been reluctant to speak beyond what he and his team wrote. Few bombshells are expected. As the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee gavel in, the buttoned-down prosecutor, once envisioned as a trusted last word, may deliver just-the-facts responses that leave more questions than answers.

Rather than galvanizing public opinion and the questions of impeachment, Mueller's reluctant appearance may become just another chapter in the Trump era that won't be closed until the 2020 election.

Trump tried to project a lack of interest, claiming he will not tune in to Wednesday's hourslong hearings and saying Democrats are "just playing games."

"I won't be watching Mueller," he told reporters.

The nation, though, will likely pay attention.

Mueller's appearance comes more than two years since the start of the Russia investigation, an extraordinary moment in Trump's presidency when, after Trump had fired FBI Director James Comey, his Justice Department appointed Mueller to take over the inquiry into election interference and the potential role that Trump and his winning 2016 campaign may have played.

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 28: Former FBI director Robert Mueller attends the ceremonial swearing-in of FBI Director James Comey at the FBI Headquarters October 28, 2013 in Washington, DC. Comey was officially sworn in as director of FBI on September 4 to succeed Mueller who had served as director for 12 years. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama applauds outgoing Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) director Robert Mueller (L) in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on June 21, 2013 as he nominates Jim Comey to be the next FBI director. Comey, a deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, would replace Mueller, who is stepping down from the agency he has led since the week before the September 11, 2001 attacks. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller applauds key staff members during a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW HEADSHOT)
391489 03: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during a conference as he stands with Justice Department veteran Robert Mueller, left, who he has nominated to head the FBI, and Attorney General John Ashcroft July 5, 2001 the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller stands for the national anthem during a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) reacts to a standing ovation from the audience, Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (C) and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (R) during Mueller's farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller gestures during his remarks at a farewell ceremony held for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
FILE PHOTO -- U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) and FBI Director Robert Mueller speak about possible terrorist threats against the United States, in Washington, May 26, 2004. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller reacts to applause from the audience during his farewell ceremony at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and FBI Director Robert Mueller make their way to a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Outgoing FBI Director Robert Mueller (C) delivers remarks at a farewell ceremony for him at the Justice Department in Washington, August 1, 2013. On Monday the U.S. Senate confirmed former Deputy Attorney General James Comey to replace Mueller, who has led the bureau since shortly before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Also onstage with Mueller are Deputy U.S. Attorney General James Cole (FROM L), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, former CIA Director George Tenet and TSA Administrator John Pistole. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 15: (L-R) Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD), U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, FBI Director Robert Mueller and Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton attend the National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol May 15, 2013 in Washington, DC. Holder and other members of the Obama administration are being criticized over reports of the Internal Revenue Services' scrutiny of conservative organization's tax exemption requests and the subpoena of two months worth of Associated Press journalists' phone records. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
FBI Director Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee hearing on Federal Bureau of Investigation oversight on Capitol Hill in Washington June 13, 2013. Mueller said on Thursday that the U.S. government is doing everything it can to hold confessed leaker Edward Snowden accountable for splashing surveillance secrets across the pages of newspapers worldwide. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych (L) welcomes FBI Director Robert Mueller during their meeting in Kiev June 5, 2013. REUTERS/Efrem Lukatsky/Pool (UKRAINE - Tags: POLITICS)
FBI Director Robert Mueller (L) arrives for the Obama presidential inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol January 21, 2013 in Washington. President Barack Obama was re-elected for a second term as President of the United States. Woman at right is unidentified. REUTERS/Win McNamee-POOL (UNITED STATES)
WASHINGTON, : FBI Director Robert Mueller answers questions before Congress 17 October 2002 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mueller was testifying before the House and Senate Select Intelligence committees' final open hearing investigating events leading up to the September 11, 2001. AFP Photos/Stephen JAFFE (Photo credit should read STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)
(L-R) CIA Director Leon Panetta, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and FBI Director Robert Mueller testify at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 16, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
399994 02: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller visits the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller (L) stand during the National Anthem alongside Attorney General Eric Holder (R) and Deputy Attorney General James Cole (C) during a farewell ceremony in Mueller's honor at the Department of Justice on August 1, 2013. Mueller is retiring from the FBI after 12-years as Director. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
399994 01: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller greets American forces on the American military compound at Kandahar Airport January 23, 2002 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Mueller had lunch with FBI officials and Haji Gulali, commander of the Kandahar region. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 19: FBI Director Robert Mueller, center, talks with Chairman Pat Leahy, D-Vt., right, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, talk before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Dirksen Building on oversight of the FBI. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 06: OVERSIGHT HEARING ON COUNTERTERRORISM--Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, and Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, before the hearing. (Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)
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Mueller spoke publicly only once, saying his team's report, released in April, should speak for itself.

The report found that while there was no evidence the campaign colluded with Russia to swing the election, Trump could not be cleared of trying to obstruct the investigation . But Mueller believed he couldn't be indicted in part because of a Justice Department opinion against prosecuting a sitting president.

The special counsel's team appeared to punt the question to Congress to decide next steps. More than 80 House Democrats now say there should be impeachment proceedings, and it's likely that Mueller's testimony increases that number.

But time has a way of changing the political dynamic.

While Mueller's testimony was once envisioned as a crystalizing event, a Watergate-style moment to uncover truths, public attention has drifted in the months since the report was released.

Trump, a master at changing the subject, has easily shifted the public's attention to his racist attacks on four women of color in Congress.

"Timing matters," said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He and others who favor opening impeachment proceedings say Mueller should have testified months ago.

A June poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found 31% of Americans said they didn't know enough to say whether Mueller's report had completely cleared Trump of coordination with Russia and 30% didn't know whether it had not completely cleared Trump of obstruction. A CNN poll found that just 3% said they had read the whole report.

Democrats are counting on Mueller's presence to capture public attention in ways the report alone has been unable to do, with some comparing it to the movie version of the book.

"I do think that the contents of the report are so significant, and so damning, that when Mr. Mueller brings them to life, and actually tells the American people ... it will have an impact," said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of the House Judiciary Committee.

"This will be really the first opportunity for the American people to hear directly from Mr. Mueller about what he found about Russian interference in the American presidential election and efforts by the president to impede, undermine or stop the investigation," he said.

It's not lost on Democrats that they are brushing up against a narrative already set, by Trump's claims of no collusion or obstruction, and Attorney General William Barr's own framing of the report before its public release with his stamp of no wrongdoing.

"There are still millions of people who think, absurdly, that there is no evidence of presidential obstruction or collusion in the report," said Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the House Judiciary Committee and also a professor of constitutional law. He said Trump and Barr have left a "fog of propaganda" hanging over the country. "We just want to clear the fog," he said.

Congress has oversight of the executive branch, and lawmakers on the committees plan to delve into key areas of the report where Trump interfered with the investigation. Democrats often note that obstruction was included in the articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon.

One focus will be on the conversations Trump had with the former White House counsel, Don McGahn, first as the president tried to fire Mueller over the Russia probe, and later to direct the lawyer to deny that he had ordered for Mueller be dismissed.

There will be questions about potential witness tampering, and the suggestions of a presidential pardon for Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and conversations with Trump's former personal attorney, Michael Cohen. Both men are now in custody, serving sentences on other charges.

At the same time, Republicans will likely try to turn the tables, casting doubt on the Russia investigation and its origins during the Obama administration.

But Mueller, 74, who hews to standards of an earlier era, is not expected to stray beyond the document his team produced. Aides to lawmakers say they have been reviewing his past congressional appearances and are expecting one-word answers and few surprises.

That could lead to an unfulfilling conclusion for Democrats, and others, who are hoping Mueller's testimony will bring some resolution.

The top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, said the hearing will be "like an old TV show that you watched years ago. ... After a few minutes you could quote what the characters could say, and nothing is new anymore."

"Frankly, the American people have moved on," Collins said.

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