WASHINGTON — Democrats appeared poised to aggressively continue their investigations into President Trump Monday, a move that carries its own danger for the party after Special Counsel Robert Mueller wrapped up his investigation without charging any Trump associate with conspiring with Russia.
As they call for continued probes into the president, it appeared likely Democrats would be bombarded with accusations from Trump and his allies that they are conducting a political “witch hunt” after Mueller has moved on. Democratic strategists also worried that high-profile grillings of Trump associates on the Hill would divert attention from legislative progress on the kitchen-table issues Democrats are campaigning on in 2020.
Both outcomes could lift Trump in his reelection bid.
“I think there was some concern from Democratic leadership in the House that if we spend the next two years investigating Trump, he can go out there saying it’s a witch hunt and feel vindicated and cruise to reelection,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist who is based in New York. “But I also think Democrats need to use the authority they’ve been given.”
Democrats argue they have a constitutional duty to continue to probe the president, made all the more pressing because Mueller declined to decide whether Trump obstructed justice or not, according to a summary of the report provided Sunday by Attorney General William Barr.
“Bob Mueller clearly threw that into Congress’s lap and said ‘I am not going to make a decision, I’m not bringing criminal charges, I’m not exonerating Trump,’ ” said Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts.
But some Democrats acknowledge that the continued focus on oversight and the Mueller report could translate poorly to voters by overshadowing their legislative efforts.
“We’re stepping on our message, no doubt about it,” said Representative Stephen Lynch, a member of the Oversight Committee. “But we just spent two years on this investigation, we need to read the report.”
The first item on Democrats’ agenda is to get the full Mueller report and the underlying evidence, which will likely prompt a lengthy legal battle. Even as Trump told reporters he wouldn’t mind if the report came out Monday, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell blocked Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer from calling for its release in a resolution on the floor. On Monday, top Democrats sent a letter to Barr demanding the full document by next week.
Trump has already flipped the script on Democrats, arguing that unnamed people involved with the Mueller probe should be investigated for investigating him. “They’ve done so many evil things,” he said.
And his Republican allies in Congress urged Democrats to drop their probes into the president, warning of their own experience losing House seats after the party pushed for the impeachment of President Clinton in the fall of 1998 and eventually seeing Clinton acquitted in the Senate. “If you keep going after Mueller spoke, people are gonna think you’re just out to get him,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said.
Democrats appeared to be unmoved by that advice. They argued Monday that collusion with Russia was just one piece of their larger oversight agenda on the president and vowed to continue looking into the president’s finances, potential campaign finance violations, and his charity foundation, while also gathering more information on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“I’m going forward with the work that I must do to understand the financial relationships that our president had with Russia,” said Representative Maxine Waters, of California, the chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee. “We’ve got to continue to do our work that we would normally do if there was no problem of this report.”
House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said he would summon Barr before his committee and suggested Mueller may not be far behind. Nadler is continuing to probe whether the president obstructed justice and appears ready to focus on Barr’s decision to clear Trump of obstruction, despite the special counsel declining to make a recommendation on that point.
The shape of the future House Intelligence Committee probe, led by Representative Adam Schiff, is less clear. A public hearing on the Trump Tower Moscow Project scheduled for Wednesday was abruptly postponed Monday night.
Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Rules Committee, suggested Democrats may pivot to focus more on Russia’s attempts to meddle in the election in 2016 and how to prevent future interference in 2020.
“No collusion doesn’t mean no interference. And no collusion doesn’t mean no corruption,” McGovern said.
Democrats face a delicate balancing act as they go forward with oversight in a post-Mueller world. They won the House with a slate of fresh-faced candidates who blanketed their swing districts with messages laser-focused on health care, infrastructure, and other issues. Now as they hope to defend those seats and wrest away the White House from Trump in 2020, they worry progress on those issues could be overshadowed by a bonanza of investigations.
“We are very clear as Democrats in the majority that we got elected on issues around the health care costs, on investments in infrastructure in education,” said Clark, adding, “at the same time we have a constitutional obligation as Congress to provide oversight and accountability to the administration.”
The perils of trying to do both were illustrated last month, when a bill to require background checks for more gun purchases passed, with little public fanfare, on the same day Michael Cohen testified in front of the Oversight Committee.
“We ought to make sure that a major hearing on oversight doesn’t happen on the same day that we pass a major piece of legislation,” McGovern said.
The first test of whether Democrats can pull attention back to their agenda could come as early as Tuesday, when House Democrats unveil health care legislation aimed at protecting people with preexisting conditions. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is also hoping to increase attention to Trump’s controversial declaration of an emergency at the southern border — a gambit he is using to find funding for his border wall project — by holding a vote to override his veto of a measure that would have blocked that declaration.
And Democrats are planning a vote this week on a bill to help close the pay gap between men and women.
House freshmen say it is issues like health care — not the whirl of accusations related to Trump — that draw the most attention from the constituents who will decide in 2020 whether or not to keep them in office.
“I just had a town hall this past weekend. We talked for several hours and I got asked a lot of questions about health care, prescription drug costs, protecting Medicare,” said Representative Andy Kim, a New Jersey Democrat who narrowly won a Republican-held congressional district during the midterms. “I heard zero questions about the Mueller report, about anything else in that investigatory realm.”