WASHINGTON — Robert S. Mueller III will take the witness stand for back-to-back House hearings on Wednesday, facing off for the first time with lawmakers battling over the implications of what he found as special counsel.
Mr. Mueller, 74, resisted testifying for months, even after he submitted a 448-page report documenting Russia’s election interference in 2016 and attempts by President Trump to impede investigators. But Democrats insisted that Mr. Mueller appear, and now the most outspoken lawmakers in both parties are eager to harness his words to serve divergent political ends: impeachment or exoneration.
The day kicks off at 8:30 a.m. Eastern for a three-hour hearing with the House Judiciary Committee. A second session, with the House Intelligence Committee, should start around noon and last about two hours. Mr. Trump started talking about Mr. Mueller on Twitter at 6:50 a.m.
Skipped reading the Mueller report? He will recap.
Mr. Mueller is expected to summarize the key findings of his investigation in his opening statement.
First, his team found that Russia carried out a sophisticated campaign during the 2016 election to sow chaos in the American political system and aid the Trump campaign using two main elements: hacking Democratic emails and planting disinformation on social media. Though the Mueller team found that the Trump campaign embraced the help and had repeated contacts with Russians, investigators ultimately determined that they lacked sufficient evidence to charge any Trump associate with conspiring with Russia.
Second, investigators documented Mr. Trump’s efforts to hinder their work — behavior that may have constituted obstruction of justice. They found that Mr. Trump ordered aides to fire Mr. Mueller and to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reassert control over the inquiry and dramatically limit its scope, as well as that Mr. Trump may have tried to discourage former aides from being truthful with investigators.
Mr. Mueller decided that Justice Department policy, which prohibits charging a sitting president, meant that he could not determine whether Mr. Trump had committed a crime. But his team also declined to clear the president, writing that “if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the president clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state.”
Democrats will try to bring Mr. Mueller’s legalistic report to life.
Democrats believe Mr. Mueller’s report has all they need to bring a case against the president — if only they can get Americans to pay attention. Think of their strategy on Wednesday less as fact-finding than moviemaking, meant to bring the special counsel’s dense report to life on national television.
Aides for the Judiciary Committee say that they will zero in on five of the most glaring episodes of possible obstruction in the report, hammering home that Mr. Trump’s behavior was unacceptable and may have resulted in charges if he were not president. The Democrats on the Intelligence Committee similarly want Mr. Mueller to discuss the evidence of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, disregarding the lack of charges to dwell on what they believe was untoward and unpatriotic behavior.
Democrats want to know whether Mr. Mueller thinks impeachment is warranted or if he could have charged Mr. Trump were he not president. But those questions may go unasked in light of Mr. Mueller’s self-imposed restrictions.
“It’s important to really bring out the key facts around the systemic nature of the Russian involvement in our democracy, how that was intended to help Donald Trump win, how the Trump campaign knew about it, and they welcomed it and how they made full use of it, and then lied about it to cover it up,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee. “Those facts are pretty damning.”
Can Mr. Mueller turbocharge impeachment?
No topic will hang over Wednesday’s hearings quite like impeachment. Mr. Mueller’s testimony may be a make-or-break moment for the wish of some liberals to try to oust Mr. Trump from office.
About 90 House Democrats already support opening an impeachment inquiry based on Mr. Mueller’s findings, as well as the president’s role in a hush money payment scheme during the 2016 campaign and other matters. Compelling testimony by Mr. Mueller could renew momentum behind the effort.
“The report presents very substantial evidence that the president is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors,” Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said on Fox News Sunday. “We have to present — or let Mueller present those facts to the American people and then see where we go from there, because the administration must be held accountable, and no president can be above the law.”
But the more important measure of whether impeachment moves forward may show up in polling and at town halls around the country when lawmakers return home next week for their August recess. Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who is opposed to impeachment proceedings, has made it clear that public sentiment is key to any such effort. Unless she begins to feel pressure from more than just activists and liberals who occupy safe congressional seats, there is little chance she will bless an impeachment inquiry.
Republicans will aim to sow doubts about the fairness of the investigation.
If you’ve tuned in to Fox News in the past two years, you’ll know there is little doubt about how dimly most of the Republicans questioning Mr. Mueller view his investigation. But lawmakers allied with the president know they are playing to a new, bigger audience and are plotting a slightly altered course.
Foremost, Republicans want to remind viewers that Mr. Mueller did not recommend conspiracy charges against Mr. Trump or any of his associates (although the investigation resulted in several other indictments), or an obstruction charge against the president.
They also want to try to poke holes in the credibility of Mr. Mueller’s investigation with accusations of anti-Trump bias. Expect questions about inflammatory anti-Trump texts exchanged by two former F.B.I. officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who helped start the bureau’s investigation of the Trump campaign and later joined Mr. Mueller’s team before the messages were discovered. They will also ask about the F.B.I.’s use of a salacious but unverified dossier of Trump-Russia connections to obtain a surveillance warrant on a former Trump campaign aide in 2016.
Mr. Trump renewed his criticism of the investigation in Twitter posts early Wednesday morning.
Earlier this week, the president cheered the Republican effort to discredit the inquiry and posed some questions, several of which have already been answered by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Mr. Mueller will be joined at the witness table by a top deputy.
In an eleventh-hour twist, Mr. Mueller will no longer be appearing alone for his testimony. Mr. Zebley is expected to sit beside Mr. Mueller at both hearings to offer assistance, and be sworn in himself as a witness during the Intelligence Committee’s session.
Mr. Mueller requested the unusual arrangement. His reasoning was not immediately clear, though Mr. Mueller is being asked to account for two years’ worth of details about a sprawling investigation. Mr. Zebley could help with that, but his presence may also upend carefully laid plans by lawmakers who were counting on facing only Mr. Mueller.
Mr. Zebley has worked closely with Mr. Mueller for years, at the F.B.I., in private practice and in the special counsel’s office.
Mr. Trump complained about the arrangement.
Will the G-man crack?
Mr. Mueller spent most of his career in law enforcement, working as a federal prosecutor and for a dozen years as F.B.I. director. The worldview he developed in those roles will be on full display.
Mr. Mueller firmly believes his role as special counsel was to remain above the political fray. A prosecutor’s written work, in court and here in his report, should be his word, in Mr. Mueller’s view. But he also became skilled over years of congressional hearings at dodging or defanging questions.
A spokesman for Mr. Mueller said on Monday that his opening remarks would hew closely to the lone public statement he made as special counsel, in May. Mr. Mueller made clear that he did not intend to deviate from his written report were he to come to Congress. “We chose those words carefully, and the work speaks for itself,” he said at the time.
Democrats and Republicans acknowledged that Mr. Mueller is unlikely to want to assist them, but they plan to press him nonetheless.
“I don’t think it’s a walk in the park,” said Representative Pramila Jayapal, Democrat of Washington and a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Katie Benner contributed reporting.