/Democrats acknowledge questioning Mueller will not be easy

Democrats acknowledge questioning Mueller will not be easy

WASHINGTON (AP) — Some are watching old video of his previous testimony. Others are closely re-reading his 448-page report. And almost all are worrying about how they’ll make the most of the short time they’ll have for questioning.

Robert Mueller, the Democrats know, will be tough to crack.

The stern, reticent former FBI director has said he won’t answer questions beyond what is in the report on Russia’s election meddling and the Trump campaign and possible obstruction of justice when he comes to Congress on July 17.

Mueller is expected to testify in front of the Judiciary and intelligence committees for two hours each, with time split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, though that timing is still a subject of negotiations. That means Democrats will have to be efficient and targeted in their attempts to extract information from the former special counsel and spotlight what they say are his most damaging findings against President Donald Trump.

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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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“It will not be easy,” said Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, a Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee. He added: “We just have to be very smart about how we use the time and really give the special counsel the time to tell the story.”

Cicilline says he’s reading the report a second time, thoroughly, with an eye toward what he wants to ask.

Separately, a Democratic aide said staff members have been watching old videos of Mueller testifying as FBI director during the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. They’re looking to see how he’ll act, the aide said, and they have noticed he gives minimal commentary when answering questions. The aide was not authorized to discuss internal preparations for the hearing and requested anonymity.

Wary of their challenging witness, Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee huddled Wednesday evening to discuss strategy for questioning Mueller, along with other topics. Exactly how the hearing will be structured is still being negotiated, members said as they emerged, but Democrats are expected to divvy up the questions in a methodical way.

Among the topics up for discussion as the hearing approaches: Should they work through the report step by step, or paint a general picture? Will every member be able to speak in the short time they have? And what can they do to best crystalize the findings of a report that they believe Americans haven’t read or absorbed?

New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a member of the panel, said before the meeting that he expects to discuss “what the team strategy is going to be as we begin an intensive phase of preparation.”

Republicans seem to have given it less thought. Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot, a senior GOP member of Judiciary, said he hasn’t started preparing and expects little news from the event. He said Democrats are just “chasing their tails” and are aiming to placate base voters who want to see the Democratic House majority take on the president.

“It’s possible a few people could change their opinion, but overall I think it’s not likely,” Chabot said.

The Judiciary Committee is expected to focus on the second half of Mueller’s report, which details multiple episodes in which Trump attempted to influence the investigation. Mueller said he couldn’t exonerate the president on obstruction of justice.

The House’s intelligence panel, which will go second, will focus on the first half of the report, which details Russian interference in the presidential election. Mueller said there wasn’t enough evidence to establish a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign but detailed several contacts between the two as well as the Trump campaign’s willingness to accept Russian help.

Under a deal struck with the committees, two of Mueller’s deputies — James Quarles and Aaron Zebley — are expected to meet with the panels in separate closed sessions after Mueller’s public hearing. But that might be in jeopardy as the Justice Department has pushed back on the arrangement, according to two people familiar with the negotiations. They requested anonymity to discuss the private talks.

The chairman of the intelligence panel, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Tuesday said he wouldn’t discuss the details of those negotiations, but that the deputies have agreed to appear and “I have no reason to believe that will be unsuccessful.”

One issue that Judiciary members are expected to focus on is whether Mueller will state whether Trump would have been charged with a crime were he not president. Jeffries said that answer could “strike to the heart of why a prosecution or recommendation to prosecute wasn’t included in the report.”

Mueller said at a May news conference that charging a president with a crime was “not an option” because of longstanding Justice Department policy. But Democrats want to know more about how he made that decision and when.

It’s unclear if Mueller will go beyond his previous comments. Mueller, who was reluctant to testify, has been firm that he will stick to what’s already in the report.

Some lawmakers say that’s OK and just want to reach a broader audience of Americans who they fear have tuned out.

“This isn’t a question of creating a narrative,” said Florida Rep. Ted Deutch, another Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “The narrative is already out there. It’s simply highlighting what is already there.”

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Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo contributed to this report.