He’s loomed – mostly unseen – over all but a few months of President Donald Trump’s tenure. On Wednesday, former special counsel Robert Mueller moves from the wings to center stage, occupying a spotlight the President would prefer just fade.
Trump has spent the last several days on the phone and in conversation with aides and allies discussing Mueller’s upcoming testimony, CNN has learned. Instead of anxiety, the President has expressed irritation at having to watch the man who has shadowed his presidency sit down before two congressional committees Wednesday.
Trump has been quizzing people around him about what they expect while complaining that Democrats will never let the Russia investigation go.
He bemoaned the “Russian witch hunt” a day ahead of the former special counsel’s testimony, asking an audience of conservative youth “should I talk about it for a sec” before laying into the probe.
“First of all, it’s very bad for our country,” Trump said. “It makes it very hard to deal with Russia. We should be able to. They’re a nuclear power. They have a big country. And we should be able to deal with them without having this artificial stuff.”
Later, he noted Mueller’s coming appearance with disdain.
“I saw Mueller’s testifying tomorrow,” he said. “How many times? Two-and-a-half years! And actually it started practically from the time I came down on the escalator.”
Multiple people who spoke with Trump have downplayed the outcome of Wednesday’s testimony. But the President not only doesn’t want unflattering headlines, he wants the investigation to be exposed as the witch hunt he’s long claimed it is.
Trump tweeted Monday directing Republicans on the two committees to prepare an aggressive defense.
“The questions should be asked, why were all of Clinton’s people given immunity, and why were the text messages of Peter S and his lover, Lisa Page, deleted and destroyed right after they left Mueller, and after we requested them(this is Illegal)?” Trump tweeted.
(Trump has frequently criticized a series of text messages Page exchanged with another former FBI official, Peter Strzok, where they disparaged the then-presidential candidate).
Even before Trump admitted this week he might watch “a little” of Mueller’s testimony – after claiming he would ignore it – officials conceded he was unlikely to completely tune out the event. It is scheduled to begin at 8:30 a.m. ET – well before Trump typically arrives to the West Wing and during the hours he’s usually holed up in the residence watching television.
Originally, the White House and Trump campaign had planned for a robust response to Mueller’s appearance in the form of a campaign rally. But when the testimony was rescheduled for a week later, Trump did not move his planned rally in North Carolina.
Instead, he’ll speak to Republican donors behind closed doors in Wheeling, West Virginia. But he’ll still have ample opportunities to respond, both on Twitter and as he departs the White House in the late afternoon for the fundraising event.
Several White House officials downplayed the prospects that Mueller could reveal newly damaging information about the President during his appearance, saying they believed he would be unwilling to go beyond what was contained in the report.
Instead, officials echoed their boss: an irritation that the Russia investigation continues to plague their efforts, particularly as the President looks ahead to his reelection.
Despite dismissing it, several members of the communications team are preparing privately to push back on Mueller’s appearance.