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Uncertainty clouds Mueller testimony, with delay possible

WASHINGTON (AP) — The timing of a highly-anticipated July 17 hearing with special counsel Robert Mueller was thrown into doubt Friday as Democrats negotiated a possible one-week delay with Mueller’s representatives and the Justice Department.

The negotiations are ongoing, but an agreement under discussion would push the hearing to July 24 and give lawmakers more time for questioning. That’s according to multiple people familiar with the talks who requested anonymity because a final decision had not been made.

Members of both parties have expressed worries that the hearing’s scheduled format, which would give roughly two hours each to the judiciary and intelligence committees, doesn’t provide enough time for all members to ask questions about Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Lawmakers were also concerned that expected closed-door sessions with two of Mueller’s deputies, James Quarles and Aaron Zebley, appeared to be in doubt after the Justice Department pushed back on the arrangement.

Some lawmakers were told Friday morning that the hearing with Mueller had been delayed, according to three of the people, but there was still uncertainty heading into Friday evening as the talks continued.

“At this moment we still plan to have our hearing on the 17th and we will let you know if that changes,” said Daniel Schwartz, spokesman for House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler.

The questions surrounding the hearing threatened to distract from the Democrats’ intended purpose: highlighting the contents of Mueller’s 448-page report for Americans who they believe have not read it. The hearing has taken on enormous significance for Democrats who want to extract information from the former special counsel and spotlight what they say are his most damaging findings against President Donald Trump.

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Mueller had already expressed his reluctance to testify, and said in a May news conference that he would not go beyond the contents of his report in public.

“I do not believe it is appropriate for me to speak further about the investigation or to comment on the actions of the Justice Department or Congress,” Mueller said then. But after several weeks of negotiations, Mueller agreed to appear for two short hearings before the judiciary and intelligence panels.

Democrats want to ask Mueller about his conclusions, including that he could not exonerate Trump on obstruction of justice after detailing several episodes in which Trump tried to influence the investigation. Mueller also said there was not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Kremlin.

In the news conference, Mueller indicated that it was up to Congress to decide what to do with his findings. But Democrats have had little success so far in their attempts to investigate, despite launching several probes, because the White House has blocked several witnesses from answering questions.

That means the committees may have to go through a lengthy court process to get more information. Around 80 Democrats have said they think an impeachment inquiry should be launched to bolster their efforts, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has so far rebuffed those calls.

One thing Judiciary members want to focus on in questioning Mueller is whether Trump would have been charged with a crime were he not president. Mueller said at the news conference that charging a president with a crime was “not an option” because of longstanding Justice Department policy. But Democrats want to know more about how he made that decision and when.

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