This month, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller is set to finally appear for his public testimony on Capitol Hill to answer questions about his famous report on Russian election meddling and potential obstruction of justice. Democratic lawmakers want answers, and they want Mueller to elaborate on Donald Trump’s possible misconduct and repeated attempts to torpedo the special counsel’s investigation.
Republican lawmakers, as well as prominent allies and legal advisers to this president, want to turn it into a hostile referendum on the nexus of the “deep state” and sexual dalliance and infidelity—which is to say that they want to use Mueller’s testimony to zero in on the duo that President Trump has repeatedly slammed as “the FBI lovers.”
“I think the American people would kinda like to know,” said Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), “when [Department of Justice Inspector General] Mr. Horowitz told [Mueller] about Peter Strzok, and Peter Strzok was on his team, and Lisa Page had been on his team, how’d he handle all that? Did he really check into how biased Mr. Strzok was and how that impacted his work?”
Jordan sits on the House Judiciary Committee and is poised to be one of Mueller’s most adversarial inquisitors when the former special counsel comes before that panel on July 17. The president has called the arch-conservative Ohio congressman “a brave, tough cookie,” sky-high praise from Trump.
But he’s not the only one who’s preparing a similar line of questioning for Mueller. “We’ve been greatly concerned about the origin of all the investigations,” said Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA), another Judiciary Committee member.
“All of the information we gathered with Strzok and Page and all those characters... I’m a lawyer, so it’s the fruit of the poison tree doctrine,” Johnson said. “If the original tree was tainted, then everything that comes from it at least has the potential to be.”
Strzok is a former chief of the FBI’s counterintelligence section who was removed from the Mueller team for previously sending text messages criticizing Trump to his FBI colleague Lisa Page, with whom he had an affair. He’s become such a major fixation within Trumpworld that the president himself has regularly brought up the Page-Strzok relationship, including a conversation between the two that touched on an “insurance policy” should then-candidate Trump beat Hillary Clinton.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time Trump allies on Capitol Hill made a high-profile spectacle out of Strzok, his texts, or his sex life.
Last year, when Strzok appeared at a televised congressional hearing, Texas Republican and hardline conservative Rep. Louie Gohmert made sure to tear into Strzok over, among other things, his affair. “I’ve talked to FBI agents around the country,” Gohmert said. “You’ve embarrassed them, you’ve embarrassed yourself, and I can’t help but wonder, when I see you looking there with a little smirk, how many times did you look so innocent into your wife’s eyes and lie to her.” (At that moment, the room erupted.)
One Democratic aide told The Daily Beast that his office was unconcerned about Republicans asking about Strzok during the upcoming hearing, knowing that Mueller would do little to engage any questions, especially about his team or former FBI agents. “He isn’t going to answer anything other than yes or no questions,” the aide said. “Or at least he isn’t going to expand on much. That’s why we have to be strategic about what we ask him.”
Democratic staffers who spoke to The Daily Beast said they are spending the next few weeks of preparation re-reading the Mueller Report, focusing on what questions they need the former special counsel to answer in the affirmative, especially because he is going to be testifying on national television.
For months, the Democrats, knowing the majority of the American public had not read the Mueller Report, have aimed to get the special counsel to appear before Congress. By simply having Mueller appear on national television, it would be a win for the party, lawmakers said. The only problem was Mueller didn’t want to testify, especially not in public. It took weeks of painstaking negotiations between the Department of Justice, the Judiciary Committee and Mueller himself, to come to a conclusion about the timing and setting for the hearing.
As it were, Democratic suspicions about the Republican game plan were well-founded and, quite frankly, obvious. The more Trump allies and advisers The Daily Beast spoke to about Mueller’s upcoming Hill appearance, the more Peter Strzok’s name came up unprompted.
In the Trump era, Strzok has become a conservative bête noire among right-wing talk radio, Trump’s favorite cable-news channels, and the Republican elite, with many Trump boosters believing he and the “insurance policy” hold the key to unlocking a “deep state” plot to undermine, if not undo, the 2016 presidential election.
For President Trump’s lawyers, who spent many months in a standoff with the special counsel’s office, they’re looking forward to Mueller getting his next day in the spotlight.
Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s personal attorneys for the Mueller probe and other legal battles, said in a brief interview last week that he hadn’t heard from GOP lawmakers to discuss possible questions, but said that Republicans on the committee should “probe appropriately” and “ask the hard questions.” Among Sekulow’s preferred, topline questions for the ex-special counsel are, “Why was Peter Strzok’s phone erased without being catalogued?”; “Who removed Peter Strzok from the investigation?”; “When you knew there was no collusion or conspiracy, why did the investigation continue?”; and other common, anti-Strzok refrains.
For some high-profile Trump loyalists, the July 17 event will also function as a spiteful game of, I Know What You Are, But What Am I?
“If I could question him, it would be respectfully hostile…[and] aggressive,” said Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and another Trump lawyer who rarely shys from trashing Mueller. “How did the Strzok-Page texts and emails get erased? Trump didn’t do that—no deleted texts or emails—and you [Mueller] question whether he committed obstruction…Did anyone review that material before it was destroyed? Who and did they give you a written report on what they decided about the texts?”
Giuliani added that, if he were a Republican on the committee, he’d ask Mueller questions as if the one-time special counsel were a mere “Democrat operative.”
For others in the Trump orbit, it’s much more personal. Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser who was interviewed by Mueller’s team, told The Daily Beast earlier this year that his legal costs had ballooned to upwards of $200,000, his business shuttered two offices, he laid off half of his employees, and his firm shed nearly three-quarters of its client base.
He blames the heat of the Mueller probe for much, if not all, of that. “Why did my family, my children, myself, my company, my employees, my clients, why did they all get trashed?” he said in late March.
Come July 17, Caputo wants the Republican Party to make an example of this special counsel—on live TV.
“The Mueller report was shot through with omissions and innuendo, clearly written to leave doubt in American minds and give partisan assistance to the president’s opposition,” Caputo charged. “If the Republican committee members don’t take this opportunity to highlight this travesty in their questions, they should resign immediately after the hearings.”