A day of drama is unfolding Wednesday in Washington, with former special counsel Robert Mueller testifying before Congress about Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Donald Trump and whether Trump subsequently obstructed justice as president by trying to thwart the prosecutor's investigation.
The stakes are high for Trump, the one-time New York real estate magnate, as he seeks to win re-election in 2020 to a second four-year term in the White House.
Trump says he has no intention of watching the five-hour nationally televised Mueller hearing, or maybe only snippets of it. He insists the hearings are a colossal waste of time and that he has been exonerated of either colluding with the Russians or interfering with Mueller's investigation.
However, millions of Americans could tune in for what promises to be a riveting day of contentious questioning before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.
Watch: Robert Mueller testimony
Critical for democrats
The hearings are equally critical for the 235 opposition Democrats in the House of Representatives, more than a third of whom have called for Trump’s impeachment or the start of an impeachment inquiry. These critics allege that the president committed “high crimes and misdemeanors” – the standard for impeachment -- by trying to halt Mueller’s 22-month probe.
They intend to focus much of their questioning on at least five instances Mueller cited in his 448-page report in which Trump allegedly sought to inhibit the probe -- obstruction allegations that could lead more Democrats to call for the president’s impeachment.
The Mueller report said the president directed then-White House counsel Donald McGahn to try to oust Mueller and then publicly lie that Trump had not told him to seek Mueller’s dismissal. Mueller alleged that Trump directed his one-time campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to try to get then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to limit the Mueller investigation. The report also alleged that the president dangled possible pardons for two key Trump aides convicted by Mueller’s team, Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who are already imprisoned for lengthy terms.
Mueller, a reluctant witness, has already said, “The report is my testimony,” so it is unclear how much new information might emerge from Wednesday's hearings. The Justice Department on Monday sent Mueller a letter emphasizing that he "must remain within the boundaries" of the public version of his report and could not "discuss the conduct of uncharged third parties."
Still, lawmakers could ask Mueller why he did not subpoena Trump to give face-to-face testimony, even though Trump said several times he was willing to testify. Trump answered written questions about his campaign, but refused to answer questions about his alleged obstruction. Trump has claimed to have the “world’s greatest memory." Yet of the the more than 65 written questions posed to him, Trump said more than 30 times that he had no recollection.
But Mueller appears unlikely to answer the biggest question of all, whether he would have charged Trump with obstruction of justice were it not for the long-standing Justice Department policy prohibiting filing criminal charges against a sitting president.
Even with vocal Democratic opposition to Trump, there appears to be no chance the Republican-controlled Senate would vote to convict Trump and remove him from office even if the House were to impeach him. National polls show Americans are opposed to impeaching Trump, either because they do not believe the allegations against him are serious enough to force his removal or prefer to cast an up-or-down vote on his presidency in the November 2020 election.
Meanwhile, Republican supporters of Trump are equally determined to demonstrate that the Mueller testimony is old news after release of his report two months ago. They contend that the probe should never have been started, that it was based on false assumptions and biased by zealous investigators who supported Trump’s 2016 Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Some Republicans allege that the investigation was begun under false pretenses based on salacious, mostly unproven allegations contained in a dossier written by a former British intelligence operative about time that Trump spent in Moscow before he entered politics.
Trump has often claimed that Mueller’s investigative team was composed of “angry Democrats” out to get him and cites the fact that an Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and a lawyer on Mueller’s team who were involved in a romantic relationship often traded anti-Trump text messages. The two said their personal statements did not influence their professional conduct. Mueller dismissed the agent while the lawyer had previously left the team.
For months, and again this week, Trump has claimed more than 250 times the Mueller investigation was a “witch hunt.” Trump has often voiced his over-simplified version of Mueller’s conclusion, saying the prosecutor found “No collusion, no obstruction,” and contending that he has been exonerated by Mueller’s report.
But Mueller’s key findings were more nuanced or murkier than that, leaving lawmakers on the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees with dozens of questions for him.
Collusion, obstruction of justice
Mueller, in his dense, often legalistic report, concluded that Trump did not conspire with Russia to help him win the White House three years ago, even though his campaign aides had numerous contacts with Russian agents. “There was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy,” Mueller decided.
At the same time, the 74-year-old Mueller, once the FBI director, reached no conclusion whether Trump obstructed justice. Mueller pointedly said that if his team “had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” but they did not say so.
Mueller said in his report that prosecutors did not consider trying to charge Trump because of the Justice Department’s policy prohibiting the filing of criminal charges against sitting U.S. presidents. After looking at Mueller’s report for two days, Attorney General William Barr and then Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided criminal charges against Trump were not warranted.
Indictments and convictions
Mueller, however, won guilty pleas or convictions of key figures in Trump’s orbit for a range of crimes. Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, has started a 7½-year prison term, while Cohen, Trump’s long-time personal attorney, has begun a three-year term. Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was convicted of lying to investigators about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to Washington and is awaiting sentencing.
Two other officials, former Manafort business associate and political operative Rick Gates and former Trump foreign affairs adviser George Papadopoulos, both pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about their Russia contacts. Gates is awaiting sentencing, while Papadopoulos was jailed for 12 days.
Long-time Trump adviser and friend Roger Stone is awaiting trial on charges that he lied to Congress about his contacts with the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks in conjunction with the release of emails hacked by Russian operatives from the computers of Democratic officials that were damaging to Clinton during the 2016 campaign.
In addition, Mueller also charged 13 Russian nationals with trying to influence the 2016 election by tricking Americans into following fake social media accounts with material favorable to Trump and against Clinton. Another dozen Russian military intelligence officers were charged with the theft of the emails from the Democratic officials. None of the Russians is ever likely to face a trial in the U.S. because the two countries do not have an extradition treaty.