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Robert Mueller to Take Center Stage at Russia Probe Hearings
Written by <a href="index.php?option=com_comprofiler&task=userProfile&user=51226"><span class="small">Eric Tucker, Mary Clare Jalonick and Michael Balsamo, Associated Press</span></a>   
Wednesday, 24 July 2019 08:11

Excerpt: "Former Trump-Russia special counsel Robert Mueller told lawmakers Wednesday he could not exonerate President Donald Trump of obstruction of justice and that the president's claims that he had done so in his report are not correct."

Robert Mueller. (photo: James Berglie/TNS)
Robert Mueller. (photo: James Berglie/TNS)

ALSO SEE: Key Aide Aaron Zebley Will Appear Alongside
Mueller During Hearings

Robert Mueller to Take Center Stage at Russia Probe Hearings

By Eric Tucker, Mary Clare Jalonick and Michael Balsamo, Associated Press

24 July 19


obert S. Mueller III’s longtime right-hand aide will appear beside him to assist as he testifies before two House committees on Wednesday, and will be sworn in as a witness for one of the sessions, according to congressional officials familiar with the arrangement.

The unusual arrangement was agreed to at the 11th hour on Tuesday, as lawmakers on the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees were undertaking their final preparations for what was expected to be an inflection point in the Democrats’ investigations of President Trump.

Mr. Mueller, the former special counsel, had been expected to appear alone during both hearings, but his team made a last-minute request in recent days that the aide, Aaron Zebley, be sworn in as a witness. The Judiciary Committee did not ultimately agree to that, but it said Mr. Zebley could sit beside Mr. Mueller to provide counsel as he navigates lawmakers’ questions. Late Tuesday, an Intelligence Committee official said that panel would allow the deputy to take an oath and theoretically answer questions himself from members of the panel.

The requests injected a taste of uncertainty on Capitol Hill on the eve of the long-anticipated hearings.

At least in the Intelligence Committee, the arrangement will take pressure off Mr. Mueller, 74, to respond to questions he may not be able or want to answer. Mr. Zebley’s presence could also upend carefully laid plans by Democrats and Republicans over how to use their scant time with Mr. Mueller, a reluctant witness known for his concision while under oath.

Jim Popkin, a spokesman for Mr. Mueller, said on Tuesday that Mr. Zebley would “accompany Special Counsel Mueller to the Wednesday hearings, as was discussed with the committees more than a week ago.”

The congressional officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations, did not specify whether Mr. Mueller or his team explained the requests.

Mr. Zebley has worked closely with Mr. Mueller for years. He worked alongside the special counsel during his 22-month investigation, served as his chief of staff when Mr. Mueller was F.B.I. director and followed him into private practice at the WilmerHale law firm. Mr. Zebley filled a similar role on the special counsel’s team, coordinating it and serving as a go-between with the Justice Department.

Mr. Popkin identified Mr. Zebley as the investigation’s “deputy special counsel” and said he “had day-to-day oversight of the investigations conducted by the office.”

It is not uncommon for government witnesses to bring aides to congressional hearings for private assistance, though in almost all cases, the aides sit behind, rather than next to, the witness, as Mr. Zebley will do before the Judiciary Committee.

Here, assistance could be particularly beneficial. Mr. Mueller is being asked to account for two years’ worth of investigative details uncovered by a large team of investigators and to do so while avoiding the disclosure of nonpublic information. The committees have roughly divided their focus, so the Judiciary Committee will concentrate on Mr. Mueller’s account of possible obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump and the Intelligence Committee on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and ties to the Trump campaign.

The idea of speaking to Mr. Mueller’s deputies is not necessarily new. The two panels had previously expected to talk to Mr. Zebley and another former member of the special counsel’s team, James L. Quarles III, in private sessions after the public hearings. But those meetings were canceled after the Justice Department objected.

The department is unlikely to be pleased by Tuesday’s developments, but because Mr. Mueller and Mr. Zebley are now private citizens, officials there have little recourse.

Democrats signaled they had little interest in the department’s view, either. In a separate letter to Mr. Mueller on Tuesday night, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said he expected Mr. Mueller to answer the committee’s questions on a wide range of topics, regardless of instruction by the Justice Department to limit his testimony.

“The D.O.J. letter attempts unduly to circumscribe your testimony and represents yet another attempt by the Trump administration to obstruct the authorized oversight activity and legitimate investigations of the committee,” Mr. Schiff wrote. “The committee categorically rejects the department’s overly expansive and baseless ‘prophylactic’ assertion of executive privilege in all its various forms. Accordingly, I fully expect that the D.O.J. letter will have no bearing on your testimony before the committee tomorrow.”

On Tuesday night on Twitter, Mr. Trump made his thoughts about the hearings clearly known, calling them a “rigged Witch Hunt,” a refrain he has used since the start of the Russia investigation. He also identified Mr. Zebley, without evidence, as a “Never Trumper” and called his presence in the hearings “a disgrace to our system.”

“Never heard of this before,” Mr. Trump tweeted. “VERY UNFAIR, SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED.”

The president frequently attacked members of Mr. Mueller’s team during his investigation for their political affiliations or prior statements. But Mr. Zebley was not one of those targets. He has no known party affiliation, and according to a Washington Post review, has not donated to candidates from either party.

Congressional Republicans had quickly denounced the possibility that Mr. Zebley could appear in public as a witness for other reasons.

Representative Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said the last-minute addition of a witness could violate House rules. He called on Democrats to reject the request.

“If Democrats believe it is the special counsel’s responsibility to testify to his report,” he said, “they have no ground for outsourcing that duty at the expense of our committee’s integrity.”

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Last Updated on Wednesday, 24 July 2019 08:51