All eyes will be on former special counsel Robert Mueller this week as he delivers his first public testimony since wrapping up his two-year investigation into Russia’s 2016 election meddling and the Trump campaign.
Anticipation over Mueller’s Wednesday testimony comes as Congress is facing a jam-packed week as lawmakers wind down their work ahead of the August recess. The House is set to leave town on Friday; the Senate is scheduled to leave next week.
But Mueller’s first hearing, and any potential fallout from his testimony, is dominating chatter around Washington even as lawmakers have other looming deadlines, including wrapping up budget talks.
Mueller, who is appearing under subpoena, is slated to testify Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee for three hours followed by two hours of questioning before the House Intelligence Committee.
He has said he will not discuss anything outside of the details of his report, but that’s expected to do little to stem the flow of questions as lawmakers try to push him to shed new light and answer long-debated questions about his investigation.
Democrats are expected to grill Mueller on potential obstruction by the administration during his investigation into Russian interference during the highly anticipated hearings.
Top Democrats said it’s necessary to give the American people answers on the 448-report, arguing they feel it was initially misrepresented by Attorney General William Barr, who they argue spun its content in favor of the president.
“I think there’s a lot he can shed light on in terms of the course of his investigation, a number of the decisions that were made in terms of specific prosecutorial matters, some of the factual allegations he makes on the report,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told The Hill shortly after the hearings were announced.
“But also things that are beyond the report that involve other witnesses, other relevant issues. We know very little, for example, about the role of the counterintelligence investigation that was taking place contemporaneous with the criminal probe,” he continued.
Schiff said Sunday he believes the president could still be indicted.
“It’s been clear from Bob Mueller that he felt and the Justice Department feels bound by the Office of Legal Counsel [OLC] opinion you can’t indict a sitting president. [Trump] is essentially an unindicted co-conspirator,” he said during an appearance on “Face the Nation.”
“In my point of view, he should be indicted. It’s the view of the Justice Department in that indictment that Donald Trump coordinated the legal scheme. He’s not above the law.”
Democrats are expected to press Mueller on whether or not he would have charged Trump with obstruction of justice in the absence of an OLC opinion from the Justice Department that says a sitting president can’t be indicted.
They’ll also likely try to get Mueller to weigh in on the party’s ongoing debate about whether or not to start impeachment proceedings against Trump.
Mueller, during a nine-minute public statement on his findings, did not mention impeachment but said the Constitution “requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing.”
Though Democratic leadership was able to quash a bid to impeach Trump last week, the issue is far from over, with several new lawmakers endorsing starting impeachment proceedings. Reps. Al Green (D-Texas) and Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who have been in the middle of the impeachment fight, are pledging to move forward with their impeachment push later this year.
Republicans — who have argued that bringing Mueller in to testify is a political ploy by Democrats and an unnecessary move after he already released the report — are expected to inquire into alleged FBI misconduct during the Russia investigation.
“I think he wrote the report as critical of the president as he could be and almost anything we ask him now is going to cast it in a better light,” said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), a member of the Intelligence Committee. “I think we have a real opportunity here.”
Trump told reporters on Friday that he won’t be watching Mueller’s testimony. Though Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has asked Mueller if he wants to testify, there are no expectations that the former special counsel will make a repeat performance before the Senate.
Pelosi had hoped to have an agreement by last Friday so the House could clear the deal, without skipping through procedural loopholes, before they leave for the August recess.
But talks carried on through the weekend, with Pelosi speaking on Friday and twice on Saturday.
The two sides agreed to top-line numbers for overall defense and nondefense spending, which will be used to craft government funding bills, for the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years. The agreement is also expected to increase the debt ceiling through 2021 after Mnuchin urged lawmakers to increase the nation’s borrowing limit before leaving town for their summer break.
But negotiators are haggling over the amount of offsets, or spending cuts, to include to help pay for the bill.
The administration is pushing for at least $150 billion in cuts to be included in the agreement. The White House reportedly sent a list late last week of $574 billion in potential cuts to congressional leaders.
A Democratic source close to talks characterized the list as an opening salvo from the administration as the two sides haggle.
“This is the White House’s starting point for negotiations on this aspect. They understand these levels are non-starters for us. Talks will continue,” the source said.
“That’s what we’re discussing. We’re close. And I think there’s a desire to come to an agreement from all of us. My worry here [is] … if Mulvaney tries to be too hard on the offset side that we wouldn’t come to an agreement,” Schumer said, referring to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
There are signs of growing anxiety among conservatives about the potential Pelosi-Mnuchin deal.
“Republican negotiators from Congress and the White House cannot allow such a deal to proceed, particularly when the end result will be a Democratic-led crusade to use poison-pill spending riders to undercut the White House’s deregulatory agenda, homeland safeguards and pro-life policies,” Republican Study Committee (RSC) Chairman Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) and RSC Budget and Spending Task Force Chairman Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) said in a joint statement.
They added that “House conservatives are deeply concerned about the latest reports regarding the status of a budget caps deal” and that based on reports it would be a “far cry from the fiscally responsible path represented by President Trump’s budget request.”
9/11 victims bill
The Senate is expected to pass legislation to extend the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund after the bill was temporarily delayed last week.
The chamber is expected to vote Tuesday afternoon on the bill, which would authorize funding through fiscal 2090. It already passed the House 402-12, meaning it will go to Trump’s desk after the Senate approves the legislation.
As part of a deal worked out last week, senators will vote on two amendments to the legislation. One, from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), is expected to use spending cuts in other areas to pay for the cost of the bill. The second potential change, from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), would provide $10.2 billion for the legislation over the next 10 years, as well as an additional $10 billion after that.
Lee, who announced the deal on votes on the Senate floor, said he supported extending money for the fund, which pays out claims for deaths and illnesses related to the attack, but had concerns about the length of the authorization.
“In Washington … this is a recipe for trouble. As we all know, finite authorizations are how Congress ensures that taxpayer money actually gets to its intended beneficiaries and not simply lost in government bureaucracy somewhere,” Lee said.
Both amendments will need 60 votes if they are going to be added to the bill, and Democrats believe they’ll have the votes to prevent them from being included in the legislation.
“They have much of a chance of winning, but there’s a right to offer them,” Schumer said about the GOP amendments.
The House is slated to take up the Homeland Security Improvement Act — spearheaded by Rep. Veronica Escobar (D-Texas) — which aims to add transparency and oversight to the Department of Homeland Security.
The bill includes provisions that would require an “investigative commission” and require Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and officers to wear body cameras.
“We have seen billions of dollars in funding go to the Department of Homeland Security to be spent on enforcement, but there has not been a similar push for accountability and oversight,” Escobar said in a statement.
“In safe communities like El Paso, the most successful law enforcement leaders are those who participate in transparency and community engagement. At a time when many leaders in the Department have ‘acting’ in their titles, this bill will ensure the Department of Homeland Security begins to engage with border communities across the country to create effective and conscientious policy. I look forward to working with my colleagues to advance this crucial piece of legislation.”
In addition to the Homeland Security Improvement Act, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said additional legislative items related to the humanitarian crisis at the border are expected to come to the floor ahead of August recess.
The Senate is set to vote on Mark Esper’s Defense secretary nomination as lawmakers race to confirm Trump’s pick to lead the Pentagon.
The Senate has set a procedural hurdle for Esper’s nomination for Monday evening. But in a sign of their confidence that they’ll confirm Esper, the chamber has also set up a final vote on his nomination for noon Tuesday.
The vote on Esper comes as Trump is facing growing tensions with Iran, a rift with Turkey and continued pushback from Capitol Hill over U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in the wake of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi’s death and the years-long civil war in Yemen.
If confirmed, Esper will be Trump’s first Senate-approved Defense secretary since December, when then-Secretary James Mattis announced his resignation amid high-profile differences with Trump on defense and military policy.
Trump had been expected to nominate then-acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, but he ultimately withdrew himself from consideration amid multiple reports describing past domestic violence incidents involving his family.
In addition to Esper’s nomination, the Senate is expected to take up Stephen Dickson’s nomination to lead the Federal Aviation Administration and Wendy Berger’s and Brian Buescher’s nominations to be district judges.
Olivia Beavers And Morgan Chalfant contributed.