Mueller to Congress: I'll pass on being politicized, thanks just the same

So it’s not William Barr preventing Robert Mueller from testifying after all. CNN reported today that Mueller has “expressed reticence” about appearing publicly in a congressional hearing due to the politics surrounding his report. The special counsel office offered some willingness to negotiate closed-door testimony, but other options may still be on the table:

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team has expressed reticence to him testifying publicly in front of the House Judiciary Committee, according to sources familiar with the matter.

The special counsel’s team has expressed the notion that Mueller does not want to appear political after staying behind the scenes for two years and not speaking as he conducted his investigation into President Donald Trump. One option is to have him testify behind closed doors, but sources caution numerous options are being considered in the negotiations between the committee and the special counsel’s team.

Justice officials are generally supportive of how the special counsel’s team is proceeding with negotiations. As Attorney General Bill Barr told The Wall Street Journal last week: “It’s Bob’s call whether he wants to testify.”

After watching Jerrold Nadler turn the House Judiciary Committee into a circus, it’s tough to blame Mueller for feeling less than enthusiastic about jumping into the center ring. He could opt for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing instead, but the temperature might not be much better on that side of the capitol building. Chair Lindsey Graham has declared himself uninterested in picking Mueller’s brain beyond the report anyway, and Senate Democrats would likely follow Nadler’s strategy to demand answers about Mueller’s punt on obstruction.

Even testifying behind closed doors seems like a reach for Mueller, so much so that the offer itself is a little surprising. Anything he says behind closed doors will get chopped up into sound bites and politicized just the same as would happen in open testimony. The delay on the transcript would likely just mean even more hyperbole surrounding any nuanced testimony Mueller would provide, and less chance to push back against it.

That drops a very uncomfortable choice in Nadler’s lap. Since he’s pursuing contempt charges against Don McGahn, does Nadler do the same with Mueller if he won’t show up under subpoena? If not, how can Nadler justify that choice, especially considering that McGahn has less choice in the matter than Mueller does? After all, Mueller isn’t covered by executive privilege, although some of the material he might discuss could be.

Besides, Mueller’s not likely to have much to say in the end outside of what he included in his report. This message from the special counsel’s office makes it clear that Mueller still has his antennae up on political manipulation of a prosecutorial effort. Under these circumstances, an institutionalist like Mueller will take the safest possible route in congressional testimony rather than burn down the Department of Justice. Mueller’s all but using a bullhorn with Nadler to tell him that there’s nothing much to discuss, and that Mueller would rather people read his report instead.

And finally, Mueller’s telling everyone else that he’s not getting direction from the White House. He just doesn’t want to participate in the political circus, and it’s tough to blame him at all for that choice.

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