Congressional Democrats’ bring-down-Trump campaign officially began this week, and it’s going to be a methodical, relentless effort aimed at discrediting and ultimately toppling the president in the 2020 election.
“For the first two years of the Trump administration, Congress allowed government witnesses to dodge uncomfortable questions. That era is over,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said Wednesday.
His committee began taking the first public steps Wednesday to formally probe different Trump campaign and administration controversies.
He isn’t alone.
A House subcommittee will hear witnesses Thursday discuss whether presidential tax returns should be released, something Trump refuses to do. Judiciary hopes to hear from Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker Friday.
And the House Intelligence Committee plans to hear later this month from Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney who’s now cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
All of these House initiatives are the opening of what promises to be 21 months of deep probes into allegations that have dogged the Trump administration for the past two years.
Democrats see a big opening. Trump’s national approval numbers have slid to around 40 percent in recent polls. Republicans will be defending 22 of the 34 Senate seats in play next year, and trying to regain the approximately 20 seats the party needs to control the House. Having a weak Trump at the top of the ticket is a liability.
Democrats, though, know that they need to be careful they don’t appear too rabid.
“We go down a dangerous path if we’re only seen as the anti-Trump party,” warned Columbia, S.C.-based Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright. “That’s what Trump wants.”
Here’s a guide to watching the coming onslaught, and judging its political potency.
EVERYTHING BUT IMPEACHMENT
Democrats gained 40 House seats in the November election, many in districts where voters are more centrist. Republicans are already pushing the notion that Democrats are on a fiercely partisan mission that sidesteps constituents’ everyday concerns.
“Democrats have become so blinded by their hatred of President Trump that they are ignoring the issues the American people actually care about,” said Bob Salera, National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman.
That sort of talk is why Democratic leaders want to proceed in an orderly fashion, making sure their Trump investigations hum along at a steady, newsworthy pace. They also want to be ready if Mueller gives them new evidence with his report, whenever that becomes public.
And they don’t want to talk about impeachment.
“We think waiting for the Mueller investigation is a prudent way for us to proceed. Impeachment proceedings are usually very partisan, and you need to have a large amount of the American public think that this is the right thing to do,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, is pushing the idea that the party should focus as much on policy as raw politics. She sent a letter to colleagues this week stressing how she hoped Trump would join her to get “bipartisan support in the Congress and the country, such as lowering the price of prescription drugs and rebuilding America’s infrastructure.”
But the media focus is squarely on the Trump controversies.
FOCUS ON ETHICS
The action started with a House Oversight Committee hearing Wednesday featuring experts on presidential ethics.
Democratic House leaders are pushing legislation to ban senior administration officials from accepting what so-called “golden parachute” payments from private sector employers in exchange for their government services.
Democrats cite former Trump National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, who left Goldman Sachs with accelerated cash and stock payments valued at nearly $300 million.
The bill also makes it clear Congress expects presidents to divest their business holdings “just as every single president since Jimmy Carter has done,” said Chairman Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat. He noted Trump had been warned to do so, but refused.
Thursday, the judiciary committee is expected to approve giving Nadler the ability to issue a subpoena to compel Whitaker to appear before the panel Friday. Whitaker is expected to do so.
Nadler wants Whitaker to answer questions about sensitive conversations with the president about ongoing investigations. “If he appears on time and ready to answer those questions, the subpoena will be entirely unnecessary,” Nadler said.
Nadler said he plans to grill Whitaker because “I believe that the independence of the (Justice) Department has been placed at risk.”
PROTECTING THE MUELLER PROBE
Democrats are adamant that Mueller’s investigation be protected from any administration interference, or in the extreme, a firing
The Judiciary Committee is likely to consider legislation to protect Mueller from being dismissed unfairly. The proposal has won support from both parties in the past.
And some Republicans are joining Democrats in pushing congressional legislation to require that a summary of Mueller’s findings be released to the public.
The House Intelligence Committee took steps Wednesday to further its own investigation of Trump activity. It voted to release all witness transcripts from its Russia investigation to Mueller and the Justice Department, which could examine the documents for potential perjury.
Mueller has used the record of the panel’s proceedings in charging Trump associate Roger Stone with lying to the committee. Cohen has appeared before the committee before. In November, he pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a Trump project in Russia.
Friday was expected to feature a private House Intelligence Committee session with Cohen.
The meeting was postponed until Feb. 28. Committee Chairman Adam Schiff of California said the delay was “in the interests of the investigation,” and would not comment further.
RELEASE THOSE TAX RETURNS
Experts on ethics and tax policy will testify before the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee Thursday on how and whether presidential returns should be released to the public.
Trump has refused, breaking a tradition of presidential returns or summaries that dates back at least 45 years.
Democrats may move slowly on making release a requirement. Ways and Means tends to be cautious, more interested in the minutiae of legislation than making bold political points.
“We’ll see what the hearing comes out with, but I would expect at some point in time we’re going to ask for the president’s tax returns,” said a cautious Hoyer on Wednesday.
SUBPOENA FOR WHITAKER?
The House Judiciary Committee is expected to approve Thursday giving Nadler the authority to issue a Whitaker subpoena.
Democrats are eager to grill Whitaker about his communication with Trump about different investigations and Whitaker’s decision not to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation.
Whitaker was advised by a Justice Department ethics official to recuse himself. Before he took his current job, Whitaker had criticized the investigation.
Judiciary is regarded as one of Congress’ most aggressive committees. It tends to attract activists on several incendiary issues, such as abortion rights, immigration policy and civil rights. Expect tough, pointed questioning from members of both parties.
Nadler is a detail-oriented Trump critic. He wrote Whitaker last month saying he wants “direct answers” to a long list of questions, and warned that “your responses may implicate communications with the President of the United States.”
And, Nadler said, “The committee will not accept your declining to answer any question on the theory that the president may want to invoke his privileges in the future.”
The top Republican on Judiciary, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, said the committee’s resources are “best invested” in talking with William Barr, Trump’s nominee as attorney general who could be confirmed by the Senate later this month.
“So we have to ask, why are House Democrats so set on having Mr. Whitaker testify on Friday?” Collins asked. “They don’t want to do oversight. They want to hold their own confirmation hearing of Whitaker. If we’re sincerely interested in conducting oversight of the DOJ, we should start with the person who’s about to be there for the long haul.”