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House Democrats start following Mueller’s leads as they investigate Trump

Immediate strategy is continuing their probes, but calls for impeachment growing in caucus

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has urged caution on talk about impeaching President Donald Trump, but many in her caucus feel differently. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has urged caution on talk about impeaching President Donald Trump, but many in her caucus feel differently. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats are starting to follow leads laid out in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report as their own investigations into President Donald Trump continue. 

The caucus held a conference call Monday evening in which the six committee chairs who are investigating various matters involving Trump updated members on their next steps now that Mueller has concluded his investigation. Details shared with Roll Call were provided by people on the call who were not authorized to publicly disclose contents of the private caucus discussion.

Not included among the Democrats’ next moves is beginning impeachment proceedings against Trump. But some rank-and-file members on the call expressed a desire to go down that path, despite Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging caution on impeachment in a “Dear Colleague” letter she sent earlier Monday.

Democrats’ probes extend far beyond the two matters Mueller examined in his investigation — Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether anyone on the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin; as well as whether Trump obstructed justice in attempting to stop the FBI and special counsel as they looked into the alleged collusion.

Ultimately, Mueller concluded that there was no crime of collusion and decided not to take a position on the crime of obstruction.

ICYMI: Barr on Mueller report ahead of release — ‘No collusion’

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House Democrats want to build their own case on the question of whether Trump obstructed justice. To that end, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler on Monday subpoenaed former White House Counsel Don McGahn, who is mentioned in the Mueller report as a witness to several instances in which Trump may have obstructed justice.

“The Special Counsel’s report, even in redacted form, outlines substantial evidence that President Trump engaged in obstruction and other abuses,” Nadler said in a statement. “It now falls to Congress to determine for itself the full scope of the misconduct and to decide what steps to take in the exercise of our duties of oversight, legislation and constitutional accountability.”

Nadler’s subpoena, issued shortly before the conference call, requests McGahn to testify on May 21 but to provide to the committee by May 7 documents related to incidents described in Mueller’s report. The chairman also has an outstanding request for Mueller to testify before his panel by May 23.

On the call, Nadler said McGahn will be the first witness in a planned series of public hearings following up on the Mueller report and document requests the committee issued earlier this year to 81 individuals and organizations as part of its investigation into any obstruction, abuse of power and corruption committed by Trump and his allies.

Before those hearings begin, the Judiciary panel is scheduled to hear from Attorney General William Barr on May 2. Democrats want to question him about how he decided with 48 hours of receiving Mueller’s completed report that there was not enough evidence to prosecute obstruction.

Numerous Democrats, from Pelosi on down the ranks, have expressed frustration with Barr for how he has handled the public response to the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation. They argue that he tried to spin the report in the president’s favor by highlighting select aspects in a four-page letter last month and then last week in a press conference before releasing a partially redacted version to Congress and the public. 

What happens next

Pelosi spoke briefly at the top of the Democrats’ Monday evening conference call before the six committee chairs provided updates on their investigations, followed by a Q&A portion in which rank-and-file members shared their views. The call lasted about an hour and a half with more than two-thirds of the Democratic Caucus participating. 

In her brief remarks, the speaker summarized Democrats’ post-Mueller report next steps simply: “duty and democracy.” Pelosi deferred to her letter from earlier in the day to describe where she thinks the caucus should be headed. 

House Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings noted that his panel is continuing its probes into White House security clearances and whether Trump exerted influence over that process, among other matters related to the administration such as the decision to add a citizenship question to the census

On the special counsel report, the Maryland Democrat reiterated Democrats’ desire to hear directly from Mueller and Barr and to see the full unredacted report and investigatory materials used to prepare it.

“The American people want accountability. … We have to use all of the weapons we have in our arsenal to address this,” Cummings said.

House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff noted how the Mueller report showed that the Trump campaign welcomed help from the Russians.

“The Trump talking point that there was no collusion was factually false. … To claim there was no evidence of a conspiracy is also false,” the California Democrat said.

Schiff vowed to bring Mueller, FBI Director Christopher Wray and others in to testify. “We are examining this soberly and through the lens of what is best for the country,” he said.

Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel said his panel would look at the “bizarre relationship” between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin since the U.S. leader “seems to have no qualms with improper foreign contact or the fact that he could be manipulated by foreign actors.” 

Engel also reiterated his desire to hold the Russian government accountable through enhanced sanctions and said he’s directed his staff to inform foreign governments that by doing business with Trump hotels, they may be contributing to a violation of the emoluments clause.

The New York Democrat urged the caucus to “be cautious” in regards to impeachment, but the committee leader who spoke after him did not heed the advice — at least when it comes to sharing her personal opinion.

“Everybody knows I’m for impeachment,” House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters said.

The California Democrat said her panel continues to look into Trump’s finances, particularly his relationship with Deutsche Bank, which she said is being cooperative in the investigation. 

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal said his panel is continuing to be “methodical and careful” in pursuing Trump’s tax returns.

Impeachment talk

Waters was the only committee chair to call for impeachment, but some rank-and file members spoke up on the call to express their support for it too. 

“I think we have great evidence that the president has blatantly violated so many laws, it’s just ridiculous. … I think we have enough,” said Florida Rep. Val Demings, who serves on the Judiciary Committee that has sole authority to launch impeachment proceedings.

Another Judiciary member, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, said the caucus should proceed with impeachment “in a way that is deliberate and thoughtful.”

“A good number of our constituents are appalled at these reports,” the Texas Democrat said, cautioning that cannot be the standard or the norm for presidential behavior.

Pennsylvania Rep. Madeleine Dean, another Judiciary member, also seemed to be pushing for action as she described the ten cases of alleged obstruction by Trump that Mueller laid out as “evidence of criminality and wrongdoing that of which we have never seen in my lifetime and possible in American history.”

Rep. Jared Huffman of California said that in light of the new evidence, the caucus ought to talk about the downside of not impeaching. He also proposed that Democrats consider removing the IRS commissioner if he refuses to provide Trump’s tax returns.

Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, a leader of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, said on Twitter that he argued on the call that Democrats should examine how impeachment proceedings would play in presidential swing states before proceeding down that path. If Trump is not convicted by the Senate, the next mechanism of accountability is the 2020 contest in which Trump plans to run for re-election, he noted.

“Impeachment is by design a political act, not a judicial or legal one,” he said in a Twitter exchange with a Huffington Post reporter. “So public sentiment is as essential (probably more) as any implicit constitutional ‘duty’.”

Pelosi, notably, did not rule out impeachment.

“We have to save our democracy. This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. It’s about saving our democracy,” she said. “If it is what we need to do to honor our responsibility to the Constitution — if that’s the place the facts take us, that’s the place we have to go.”

However, Pelosi also reiterated something she pointed out in her earlier letter.

“We don’t have to go to articles of impeachment to obtain the facts, the presentation of facts,” she said.