Democrats admit it: They need to shift their post-Mueller strategy.
They’ve been so busy fighting technical battles over access to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report that they’ve barely had time to speak directly to Americans about its damning public findings of President Donald Trump’s conduct.
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Trump and Attorney General William Barr, they say, drew them into process-focused skirmishes — battles over redactions, access to evidence and even a multi-day fight over the format of a hearing with Barr which the attorney general later refused to attend.
Lost in it all was the vivid evidence Mueller uncovered about Trump’s efforts to thwart the investigation of his campaign’s links to Russia. Now, Democrats say, it’s time to start telling that story, too.
“Attorney General Barr did a very effective number on the country,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “He did everything in his power to create a thick fog of propaganda around the country and then to force us into these fights over process. But we’re getting back on track.”
After returning from a weeklong Memorial Day recess, Democrats envision a wave of hearings on the substance of Mueller’s report.
The Intelligence Committee is exploring potential hearings on parts of Mueller’s report that chronicled a complex Russian plot to help elect Trump. The committee may soon revisit testimony from one Mueller witness — longtime Trump associate Felix Sater — who had been slated to appear in March. Sater was the chief negotiator of the Trump Tower Moscow project, which the committee is investigating.
The Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, anticipates a renewed focus on the dozen examples of potential obstruction of justice that Mueller described in his report. The committee has been consumed over the past two months with fights for access to Mueller’s key witnesses — like former White House counsel Don McGahn, whom the White House has instructed to defy the committee’s subpoena for his testimony and related documents — as well as Mueller himself.
Those fights, they say, are necessary because of the Trump administration’s resistance to their subpoenas for documents and witness testimony. Raskin said that lawmakers didn’t anticipate the degree to which Trump would resist their demands.
“We expected that we would get the unredacted report. We expected that McGahn would come. We expected that we would have no problem getting the witnesses and the testimony,” he said. “But we’re having to subpoena them all and we’re having to go fight in court.”
Rep. David Cicilline said they wouldn’t have spent any time on process if they had easier access to witnesses.
“We would’ve gone immediately to the meat of the report if Mr. Mueller came in, if Don McGahn came in,” said Cicilline (D-R.I.), another member of the Judiciary Committee. “I think there’s no question that the objective here of this administration is to stonewall the American people.”
And while the battles to access witnesses and more of Mueller’s evidence will continue, members say, they also plan to enter a new phase of their investigations.
That phase would involve hearings in June and July featuring former prosecutors who can walk Americans through the allegations of obstruction of justice, witness intimidation and the dangling of pardons. The committee may also focus on Trump’s business entanglements and whether he’s received any unauthorized payments from foreign governments — known as emoluments.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said he anticipates calling a bipartisan panel of prosecutors who recently signed a letter arguing that Mueller’s evidence proves Trump obstructed justice — and that Trump would have been charged if he weren’t the president.
“At some point you’re going to see a panel of federal prosecutors come in about the letter that they signed,” said Lieu, also a Judiciary Committee member. “We’ll also hold hearings on witness intimidation. We’ll hold hearings on abuse of power. Just because Mueller doesn’t come in doesn’t mean we don’t continue with these.”
It’s all part of a strategy, Democrats say, to bring the allegations off the pages of the 448-page Mueller report — which they worry few Americans will actually read — and onto Americans’ television screens.
Mueller, however, seems less inclined to make a public scene out of his report, House Judiciary Chair Jerrold Nadler said Thursday. Speaking with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, Nadler revealed Mueller wants to testify in private with a public transcript, but speculated Mueller "envisions himself correctly as a man of great rectitude and apolitical and he doesn't want to participate in anything that he might regard as a political spectacle."
The shift in focus comes as Speaker Nancy Pelosi grapples with a growing chorus of Democrats — including many Judiciary Committee members — who are eager to see the House formally launch impeachment proceedings against the president, citing Trump’s resistance to their myriad investigations targeting his administration and his personal finances.
“We can’t just impeach based on allegations in the Mueller report or proof that’s cited in the Mueller report, and then take that over to the Senate for the trial. We’ve got to compile that record meticulously,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview.
“It may appear to be slow and coming without any immediate gratifying result. But nonetheless, that is what we must do,” Johnson acknowledged.
A 200-page volume of Mueller’s report described a panicked Trump making multiple attempts to limit or constrain Mueller while the special counsel’s team pursued allegations that his campaign conspired with Russians to interfere in the 2016 election. Mueller found that there was no such conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, but he outlined dozens of contacts between Trump associates and Russians.
At one point, Trump ordered McGahn, his then-White House counsel, to have Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein — who at the time supervised Mueller’s probe — fire the special counsel. McGahn threatened to resign over the demand.
Focusing on these examples could also buy Pelosi and her leadership much-needed time while they consider whether to formally launch impeachment proceedings against Trump. In the meantime, House Democrats are already prevailing in court. This week alone, federal judges upheld three subpoenas seeking Trump’s financial records.
But while those legal matters wind their way through a potentially lengthy appeals process, Democrats say they can use hearings to draw attention to Mueller’s substantive findings.
“I think until we sort out through the courts the president’s obstruction efforts then we need to talk to the witnesses that we can and really lay the foundation for the work we have to do,” said Judiciary Committee member Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.).
Matthew Choi contributed to this report.