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Dems seek to navigate Mueller landmines

House Democrats are diving into a week of intense preparations ahead of Robert Mueller's testimony to ensure they maximize their limited time with the former special counsel, amid new fears that the high-profile appearance may lack the impact they are seeking to firmly shift public opinion against President Donald Trump.

Posted Updated
Manu Raju
Jeremy Herb, CNN
CNN — House Democrats are diving into a week of intense preparations ahead of Robert Mueller's testimony to ensure they maximize their limited time with the former special counsel, amid new fears that the high-profile appearance may lack the impact they are seeking to firmly shift public opinion against President Donald Trump.

The hearing is being billed as a make-or-break moment for Democrats pressing for the House to begin an impeachment inquiry into the President, with advocates predicting his appearance will convince the public of the seriousness of the alleged crimes detailed in the sweeping report.

But Mueller's time before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees will be limited, with each panel currently expected to have roughly two hours back-to-back with the former special counsel -- split equally between Democrats and Republicans. Lawmakers are beginning to raise alarms they won't have enough time to press Mueller, who has already warned he would not go beyond the findings in his report.

"It does concern me," Rep. Karen Bass, a California Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, told CNN. "That is definitely not going to be enough time."

Bass added: "You could spend two hours on the executive summary. ... I think that's what's going to happen, after two hours, we're going to be frustrated and want him to come back."

Behind the scenes, the preparations are intensifying. Aides on both committees are furiously preparing lines of questioning to divide up among the members. Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee and on the House Intelligence Committee each have separate closed-door meetings this week to go over their strategy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is being kept apprised of the preparations, sources say.

Leaving their closed-door meeting Wednesday evening, Judiciary Committee Democrats said negotiations continued about the format of the hearing, including the possibility of extending it, though it's unclear whether Mueller's team will consider that.

And Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have been urged to re-read the 448-page Mueller report to have a mastery of the subject during their questioning. On his way into a Tuesday morning caucus meeting, Democratic Rep. Jim Himes, a member of the committee from Connecticut, was holding a copy of the report's findings on obstruction of justice.

"We spent a lot of time organizing ourselves to make sure that we take most advantage of the time," Himes said. "This is not going to be a whole bunch of members freelancing. This will be organized."

But Himes had this warning: "I don't think anybody should expect much news out of this hearing. Bob Mueller has said that his report is his testimony. He's one of the most disciplined men in Washington, DC, so I don't think any of us are expecting big headlines out of this testimony."

The logistics are amounting to a major challenge for Democrats. If Mueller dodges their questions or leaves topics hanging, they will have to follow up with him and pin him down when necessary. But at the same time, sources say, each member is expected to have a pre-approved line of questioning to ensure they hit all of the key topics and don't freelance.

Some privately worry that it may be difficult to hit those pre-approved topics while following up with Mueller -- all within a very short time frame.

"I think we have to resist the impulse to editorialize," said Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democratic member of the House Judiciary Committee. "We want to give the special counsel the opportunity to speak directly to the American people ... to punch through the fog of propaganda left by Attorney General (William) Barr."

What's more: GOP lawmakers are preparing to focus their questioning to raise concerns over the credibility of the Mueller probe, namely the origins of the investigation and the opposition research dossier that helped the FBI obtain a surveillance warrant on a Trump adviser.

Recognizing this dynamic, Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN Tuesday that his members will have to be "economical in our questions and be very well organized."

"Well, we would love more time, but we're going to make the best use of that time we possibly can," Schiff said.

Fight over Mueller deputies

Democrats say they're concerned that Barr is trying to undermine the hearing before it begins, after the attorney general said earlier this week he would back up Mueller if he chose to defy the subpoena for his testimony.

Already, the Justice Department is resisting Democrats' plans to bring in two of Mueller's deputies, Aaron Zebley and James Quarles, for closed-door testimony after Mueller's appearance, threatening to upend the agreement that was reached when Democrats issued a subpoena for Mueller's testimony last month.

"It's another expression of the cover up that Barr has been running," House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said Tuesday.

Schiff said that he expects Mueller and his team members to appear next week, despite the comments from Barr and the resistance from DOJ.

"I think it's been clear from the very beginning Barr had no interest in seeing Mueller testify," Schiff said. "So I think earlier, when he said it's completely up to Bob Mueller whether he testifies, he was counting on Bob Mueller not wanting to testify and not being compelled to. But now, I think his real motivation is exposed. He is nothing if not transparent, and he is transparently the President's agent."

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Election security threats loom into 2020

The fight over Mueller comes as lawmakers in both parties say they want to ensure the election interference from 2016 that Mueller investigated does not occur during the 2020 campaign. The House and Senate received classified briefings on the administration's election security efforts.

At the House briefing, Democratic Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi pressed officials about whether Trump has received a comprehensive, election security briefing for the 2020 elections. Five sources said that the officials did not answer directly and sidestepped the question.

The officials contended that the President regularly receives briefings and talks to Cabinet officials but didn't say he received a comprehensive election security briefing, the sources said.

Questions about election security and the meddling threat posed by Russia may be those Mueller is most eager to tackle: In his June public statement, Mueller concluded by emphasizing there were "multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election," adding that the "allegation deserves the attention of every American."

'I'd like to have him for a month'

Mueller will first appear before the House Judiciary Committee for 2-to-2.5 hours, Nadler said Wednesday. Afterward, he will be questioned by the House Intelligence Committee for roughly the same amount of time.

Under the agreement with the Justice Department, 22 members of each panel would ask questions, amounting to roughly two hours of questioning per committee, according to a House aide. That would allow everyone on the House Intelligence Committee, which has 22 members, to question Mueller.

But that format poses a problem for the junior members of the House Judiciary Committee, which has more than 40 lawmakers: Only about half of the committee would get the chance to ask Mueller questions in the public hearing.

Democrats left the closed-door Judiciary Committee meeting Wednesday saying that talks over the format could continue right up until next week's hearing.

"Everything is still in flux. And, honestly, I think it'll be in flux perhaps all the way until that date," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. "We thought we were going to have people come in and testify, and then the night before, the White House weighed in and said no. I don't think Mueller is that kind of person. I think he intends to come in and testify. I think we still have a little more work to do to figure out exactly what that looks like."

Some argued two hours each was still better than zero, even if they are not satisfied with the arrangement.

"I am concerned. I wish we had more time," said Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. "We will get four hours in total among two committees. That is, I do believe, sufficient time to get the major facts out to the American people about the Mueller report."

Lieu suggested that the House Judiciary Committee could follow the lead of the Education and Labor Committee when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos previously testified: Each member got three minutes to question her -- instead of five.

Rep. Steve Cohen, a Tennessee Democrat on the Judiciary panel who has been a vocal impeachment advocate, said two hours would be plenty of time for Mueller's message to resonate with the public. But Cohen acknowledged that he would "obviously" avoid theatrics like earlier this year when he brought a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken when Barr did not appear at a committee hearing.

"I'd like to have him for a month," Cohen said of Mueller, "but two hours is enough."

This story has been updated with additional developments Wednesday.

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