“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a Judiciary Committee member, said in a brief interview. “I have seen nothing since that leads me to think [Graham] is actually going to call Mueller.”
Despite the public bipartisan agreement, there are real obstacles and risks to securing Mueller’s testimony. For Republicans, a strong defense by Mueller could shed unwelcome light on President Donald Trump’s previous statements and conduct in the final stretch of the election. For Democrats, another halting performance by the ex-FBI chief could give Trump and his allies more ammunition for their attacks on the investigations that have dogged Trump and his associates for years.
Then, there’s the logistical hurdles.
House Democrats faced an uphill battle to pressure a reluctant Mueller to testify last year; it took weeks of talks, and eventually a subpoena, for Mueller to appear before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees — an appearance Graham later called “not pretty.”
Negotiating with Mueller a second time won’t be any easier, and Graham said his staff isn’t yet in contact with Mueller or his team.
Graham is spearheading a comprehensive review of the origins of the Russia investigation, which ensnared Trump and his allies for years. And he’s eyeing testimony from former FBI bigwigs in the coming months, including former FBI Director James Comey and the ex-FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, even before hearing from Mueller.
That puts a potential Mueller hearing just weeks before Americans head to the polls. Democrats view Graham’s posture as simply an effort to discredit Mueller’s investigation and, in the process, boost a key theme of Trump’s reelection campaign as close to the November election as possible. Graham has maintained that his investigation has nothing to do with the election.
“He’ll be invited,” Graham reiterated last week. “[But] that’ll come at the end. I’m just working through the nuts and bolts.”
A spokesman for Mueller and former deputy special counsel Aaron Zebley, declined to comment on possible testimony before the panel.
With Graham’s investigation, Democrats also see an election-year plot by Republican senators to run cover for Trump, who has sought to hit back against those who spearheaded the various investigations that targeted him and his associates. To this day, Trump continues to remind Americans of the probes that he believes unfairly targeted him — an effort that invigorates his loyal base of supporters.
At the same time, Democrats still welcome Mueller’s appearance before the committee and dismiss the notion that it would be politically risky for them, leaning on Mueller to push back on Republicans’ characterizations of his investigation as unfounded and to defend what they believe was a properly predicated inquiry.
“They’ll hear more of the truth. It’s the old Harry Truman story — someone from the crowd called out, ‘Give ‘em hell, Harry.’ And he said, ‘I’m just going to tell them the truth and they’ll think it’s hell,’” Blumenthal quipped.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), another member of the panel, talked up Mueller as a skilled professional who is “more than capable” of defending his probe, which yielded 34 criminal indictments.
“I would think for people who are trafficking in these conspiracy theories and these unfounded allegations about Mueller, the risk is that he’ll be forceful and clear, and demonstrate that it was a well-predicated investigation,” Coons said in a brief interview.
In justifying their investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, Republicans point to several pieces of recently declassified information that calls into question the genesis of the investigation into potential ties between Trump associates and the Kremlin. That includes a Justice Department inspector general report that documented serious errors and abuses as part of the warrant application process for a former Trump campaign adviser.
Earlier this month, Graham released documents suggesting that senior FBI officials were initially skeptical of the emerging narrative early in Trump’s presidency that his campaign was in contact with Russian intelligence officers. Republicans assert that the risks of hearing from Mueller instead lie with Democrats, whom they say will be forced to defend an investigation riddled with biases and corruption.
“I want to know how, [did] this become a fishing expedition — and we got plenty of evidence that it should have never started in the first place,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the former Judiciary Committee chairman.
“Now, that’s probably not his fault. He didn’t make the decision to set up his job,” Grassley added of Mueller. “But it’s just kind of irritating that the president has gone through two years of Russia-gate, $30 million, and then you’ve got impeachment and I don’t know how many other things that ever since before he was elected president, they were going to get him out of office.”
Indeed, Republicans concede that their concerns about the Russia investigation have less to do with Mueller himself and focus more on the Justice Department officials who spearheaded the counterintelligence investigation that eventually spun off into the Mueller probe, after then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel.
Republicans have focused more of their ire on the Obama administration, specifically the senior FBI agents who opened and continued pursuing an investigation that Trump has said was a “hoax” and a “witch hunt,” even as more evidence began to emerge that Russia was interfering in the 2016 campaign to boost Trump’s prospects against Hillary Clinton.
“More and more disturbing evidence has come up about the politicization and corruption of the Obama FBI and Department of Justice, and I think it’s important for Mr. Mueller to describe what they knew and when they knew it,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a one-time Trump foe who has used his perch on the Judiciary Committee to hammer the Obama administration for its handling of the Russia probe.
Graham announced earlier this month that he would grant Democrats’ request for Mueller to appear before the committee, citing Mueller’s July 11 Washington Post op-ed in which he strongly defended his nearly two-year investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
In the op-ed, Mueller also defended his office’s prosecution of Roger Stone, the longtime Trump confidant whose prison sentence the president had commuted just a day earlier. Stone was convicted on seven counts including obstruction, witness tampering and making false statements.
“Bottom line is, I had no intention of calling Mr. Mueller. He testified before the House. It was not pretty to watch. But at the end of the day, Trey, he decided to interject himself into the Roger Stone case,” Graham said recently on a Fox News podcast with former Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
Democrats had said they were eager for Mueller to appear before the committee to allow him to more thoroughly justify his investigation, which has drawn consistent attacks from Trump and his allies, particularly as the committee continues to release new information about the probe’s origins.
Asked about the timing of Mueller’s possible appearance before the Senate, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), a Judiciary Committee member, said her party’s initial calls for Mueller to testify came months ago, noting that Democrats have since sought testimony from other central figures in the Russia investigation like Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort — only to be shut down by the committee’s Republican majority.
“That pretty much gives you an idea of where Lindsey is coming from with regard to getting to the truth of anything,” Hirono added.
Democrats insist they’re not afraid of what could come out of a Mueller hearing, even if it happens so close to the election. They said Americans would see through what they perceive to be a partisan stunt.
“Everything that Lindsey has been doing lately is really, in my view, for political purposes,” Hirono said. “And he’s very much in step with the president, who does nothing without a political motive behind it, which has to do with protecting — as we say in Hawaii — his okole.”