In what is already the most anticipated congressional testimony in years, Russia investigation special counsel Robert Mueller is scheduled to appear before two House committees on July 17. He is set to testify about his findings on the 2016 Donald Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and Trump’s subsequent attempts to obstruct Mueller’s investigation as spelled out in his final report, which remains available to read online via The New York Times.
But now the deal to secure Mueller’s testimony could be falling apart, as the United States Justice Department, led by Attorney General William Barr, has instructed two of Mueller’s top aides not to testify, according to a New York Times report published on Tuesday. The two aides, Aaron Zebley and James L. Quarles III, are considered the two members of the special counsel’s staff who were closest to Mueller.
Zebley, in particular, is believed to be Mueller’s “closest associate,” The Times reported. He served as chief of staff when Mueller was FBI director, performed a similar function during the two-year special counsel’s Russia probe, and became “intimately familiar with most aspects of the investigation,” according to The Times. Zebley was expected to provide Congress with closed-door testimony that would add important details and context to Mueller’s own public testimony.
But now the Justice Department has told the two Mueller aides that it opposes their appearances before the congressional committees. Both Zebley and Quarles are now private citizens, meaning they are not bound by Justice Department orders — but they may nonetheless feel a “chilling effect” from the Justice Department order, according to Times reporters Nicholas Fandos and Katie Benner.
Fandos and Benner wrote that the Justice Department attempt to stop the two Mueller aides from testifying indicated that the deal struck by the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees for Mueller’s testimony, and that of his aides, “could still unravel.”
Though Barr earlier said that he would not oppose Mueller’s testimony to Congress, on Monday the attorney general gave an interview to the Associated Press in which he blasted Mueller’s upcoming congressional appearance as nothing more than “a public spectacle.”
“I’m not sure what purpose is served by dragging him up there and trying to grill him,” Barr told the AP, adding that if Mueller did an about-face and backed out of his July 17 date to testify, he would support that decision by the former special counsel.
House Democrats on the two committees had not commented as of Tuesday night on the Justice Department attempt to disrupt Mueller’s planned testimony. Earlier, Trump had tweeted that Mueller’s testimony constituted “presidential harassment,” according to a CNN report.