With Republicans declaring victory in the end of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Democrats in Congress are taking more of a long-term view with an eye toward the 2020 election.
Mueller’s conclusion that there was not sufficient evidence of the Trump campaign coordinating with Russia seems to have staved off talk of impeachment among Democratic leaders, who were wary of the idea in the first place.
But they aren’t giving up either. Instead, Democrats appear to be developing a three-pronged strategy: Push Attorney General Bill Barr for the release of the full report, continue investigating other Trump controversies and keep talking about their legislative agenda.
At a Democratic caucus meeting on Tuesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi referred to the completion of the Mueller report — but only after stressing the need for the party to continue focusing on issues like lowering healthcare costs.
“Be calm,” she also said. “Take a deep breath. Don’t become like them. We have to handle professionally, officially, patriotically, strategically.”
In a sense, this is not a fundamental shift, and leadership is downplaying that it represents one at all. Lawmakers actively seeking to impeach Trump represent a small but vocal fraction of the caucus. Pelosi, who earlier this month had said Trump was “not worth” impeaching, had always stressed the bar would have to be incredibly high, and include bipartisan support. So did House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, who would oversee proceedings.
But there was always a sense that, if impeachment were to happen, it would stem from the Mueller report and that only a major development from the special counsel’s probe could elevate the matter to the standards leadership had set.
While the full report has not been released, all signs indicate Mueller’s report does not include such damaging information. In his summary to Congress, Barr wrote, citing Mueller’s report, that the special counsel “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
“For those Democrats who wanted to use this as the foundation for their impeachment proceedings, they need to give it up,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said Monday, as Republicans took a triumphant victory lap.
Barr also wrote, however, that he was the one who had determined there was insufficient evidence to show Trump obstructed justice in the investigation. Mueller, Barr explained, did not draw a conclusion one way or the other, leaving it up to the Department of Justice to make the determination.
Democrats have always said they would not take Barr’s summary at face value. And while they are not taking issue with Mueller’s findings, they are seizing on this caveat as evidence that Barr needs to hand over the full report to Congress, because he cannot be trusted.
“[Barr] did exactly what he was hired to do, which was attempt to exonerate the President when Bob Mueller found there was no exoneration,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Special Committee on Intelligence, which is conducting its own investigation into Trump and his associates’ connection with Russia.
On Monday, Schiff, along with Nadler and four other committee chairs with the most powerful oversight capabilities sent a letter to the Department of Justice requesting that they receive the report by April 2. If their requests are not by that date, it’s likely they will issue a subpoena.
Even as Democrats push for release of the report though, they have taken pains to emphasized their legislative agenda will not fall by the wayside. As Pelosi was convening an emergency caucus conference call this past weekend to discuss the prospect of Barr’s summary, she simultaneously sent an announcement previewing health care legislation Democrats will unveil Tuesday.
On that end, the Democrats were handed an unexpected gift Monday evening. The Department of Justice filed to overturn the Affordable Care Act, and Democrats wasted no time hyping up the decision.
“Once again, the Republicans want to strip away protection for Americans with preexisting conditions; they simply cannot help themselves,” said said Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries. “This was a defining issue of the 2018 midterm elections. We embrace this fight.”
While Democrats will continue their oversight duties — something they frequently highlight as their constitutional responsibilities — how the oversight of the Trump administration will more broadly shift remains unclear, and probably depends on what they receive in the report. Schiff’s committee postponed its hearing with Trump associate Felix Sater, which was slated for this week, citing the “need to understand Special Counsel Mueller’s areas of inquiry and evidence his office uncovered.”
But in the past weeks, House Democrats, perhaps anticipating that there would be no smoking gun in Mueller’s findings, have been stressing that their own lines of inquiry are much broader than the one Mueller was tasked with. Mueller’s jurisdiction did not include Trump’s possible violations of the emolument clause and the tax code, or his implication in hush money payments to cover up his extramarital affairs, all of which are topics the House Democrats are probing.
Less than two weeks before Mueller delivered his report to Barr, for instance, Nadler opened a broad inquiry into whether the President or anyone in his administration had abused power. His committee has since received documents from some of Trump’s closest associates, including former Communications Director Hope Hicks.
“We have a responsibility on judiciary. We are a co-equal branch of government,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who is a member of the committee. “We have a responsibility to rout public corruption, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice.”