Special counsel Robert Mueller in May.

Special counsel Robert Mueller in May. Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster

WASHINGTON — Robert Mueller, the taciturn former special counsel and reluctant witness, will take center stage Wednesday when he appears before two House committees. His testimony will answer at least one key question: Will he change any minds?

Public opinion has split along party lines about  any role played by President Donald Trump in Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether he tried to obstruct the ensuing probes, according to polls taken before and after the release of the redacted Mueller report.

When Mueller testifies in the televised Judiciary and Intelligence committee hearings, viewers will have a chance to reassess their own conclusions as they watch Mueller recap his findings and lawmakers quiz, push and prod him about how and why he reached them.

For Democrats, Republicans and Trump, there is a lot riding on the public reaction to the expected five hours of Mueller testimony: It will help shape campaigns for the 2020 presidential election and influence House Democrats’ decisions on whether to move forward with impeachment.

Yet Mueller, who is appearing only because of the House Democrats’ subpoena, will say in opening statements that he will stick to what already is on the public record during his time in front of 41 lawmakers on the Judiciary committee and 22 on the Intelligence panel.

“The report is my testimony,” Mueller said in May in his only public statement in two years as special counsel. His spokesman told reporters he will submit his redacted 448-page report as his written statement.

The Justice Department reinforced Mueller’s narrow scope, giving him his requested guidance in a letter made public Tuesday. The department told him to “not go beyond” the public version of the report in commenting about issues including pending criminal prosecutions, “uncharged third parties” and “executive privilege” and “presidential communications privileges.”

Mueller drove home his cautious approach in making a last-minute request on Tuesday to have his longtime aide, Aaron Zebley, sit beside him so that he can advise him on his answers to lawmakers' questions, news reports said. Judiciary Committee Democrats granted his request.  

Under constraints and aided by counsel, Mueller may not answer much-anticipated questions, such as would he have charged Trump with obstruction if the Justice Department didn’t have a rule saying he couldn’t indict a sitting president? Or, from the Republican side, did the FBI or Mueller’s team work with Democrats to initiate and prolong the investigation?

Still, Democrats said they hoped that Mueller would turn his dry, nuanced and legalistic document into a captivating oral report that fleshes out his findings, especially about Trump campaign contacts with Russians and Trump’s alleged attempts to obstruct the investigation.

“It’s important that the American people hear directly from Mueller what the report found,” Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan) said Tuesday on CNN. “Anyone else who had done what the report finds that he has done would face criminal prosecution.”

Democrats hope to reach those who haven’t read or formed a hard opinion of the report, said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), a Judiciary Committee member. “For a lot of people, it’s set in their minds,” Cohen said in an interview. But ten percent of voters still could be persuaded, he said.

Republicans see the hearings as a chance to reinforce the fact Mueller chose not to charge Trump with conspiracy or obstruction. At the same time, they said they'd seek to undercut the credibility of the probe as biased by anti-Trump FBI agents and a Democrat-financed dossier.

“What we’re expecting is another round of what we already know,” Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), the top Judiciary Committee Republican, said on Fox News Sunday.

Republicans want the hearings to be “the final episode of the Mueller report,” Collins said.

 On Tuesday, Trump sought to turn the attention away from Mueller, explaining to a gathering of teen conservative activists he had tweeted about the strong U.S. economy that morning “because I saw Mueller is testifying tomorrow, again.”

Mueller will appear before the Judiciary Committee for about three hours beginning at 8:30 a.m. and before the Intelligence Committee for about two hours beginning at noon.

National and cable news networks will carry the hearings live.

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