Democrats are determined to spotlight Trump's misdeeds, but remain divided on how

WASHINGTON — Congress returns Monday from a weeklong recess with Democrats in broad agreement that they must do a better job of presenting to the public the details of special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings but starkly at odds over how to do that.

Democrats are determined to spotlight Trump's misdeeds, but remain divided on how

House Democratic leaders continue to focus on securing Mueller’s public testimony, convinced that even a straight recitation of his findings before television cameras could have a significant effect on public opinion. But a growing number of Democrats are clamoring for a more drastic step: instigating a formal impeachment inquiry.

“Process and the legal issues associated with the report — you hear a lot of that from us,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, who favors impeachment. “I think it’s incumbent on some of us nonlawyers like myself to take hold of the message as well.”

“The American people don’t want an academic exercise,” Grijalva added. “I think they want to see movement.”

With his extraordinary appearance at the Justice Department on Wednesday, Mueller handed lawmakers the opening they needed to reset the debate on the substance of his report. Public squabbling between Democrats and the White House over access to investigative documents and witnesses had done little to change public opinion.

By breaking his two-year public silence, Mueller refocused Washington’s attention on the severity of President Donald Trump’s behavior outlined in his report and the constraints of Justice Department policy that he says prohibited him from accusing the president of a crime. “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so,” Mueller said.

But Democrats are conflicted over how to sharpen the public’s focus on at least 10 episodes of possible obstruction of justice documented by Mueller and the core issue of Russia’s influence over the 2016 presidential campaign. Party leaders continue to focus on the House’s slow-burn investigations. Key witnesses — including Mueller — could bring the dry 448-page report to life, they say.

Republicans calling for the country to move on and a president intent on blocking testimony are not making it easy. And Democratic leaders are aware they are up against a ticking clock. The House has only about 16 legislative days before the July 4 recess. Then comes August off and the Democratic primary races — with the implicit argument that voters, not Congress, should decide Trump’s fate.

Those constraints have led a growing number of Democrats to argue that the best path to make a clear and effective case against Trump is through a formal impeachment inquiry. More than 50 House members have expressed public support for such an inquiry, a bloc that includes the chairmen of the Financial Services, Homeland Security, Rules, Budget and Natural Resources Committees.

One key bloc in the House, the Congressional Black Caucus, has taken no formal position, though some of its members are leading the charge on impeachment. “We’re probably going to wind up with no alternative but to move to impeachment, but I don’t think we are there today,” said the group’s chairwoman, Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., who is planning an educational session on impeachment for members when they return to Washington.

In another sign of momentum in that direction, Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 House Democrat, said Sunday that in his view it was more a question of when than if the House would hold impeachment proceedings.

“What I have said time and time again is, Mueller has developed the grounds for impeachment,” Clyburn said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “The House has to determine the timing for impeachment. There’s a big difference.”

But he cautioned against moving too quickly, and the publicly declared supporters still fall well short of the 218 or so that would be required if Speaker Nancy Pelosi were to put it to a vote. More to the point, the backers of impeachment have not convinced the speaker that there is enough public support to warrant taking a step that will further cleave the country.

“Impeachment is a political act, and you cannot impeach a president if the American people will not support it,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., the House Judiciary Committee chairman who leads the Democrats’ existing investigation into obstruction of justice and abuse of power, during an appearance Friday on WNYC, a public radio station in New York City.

But Nadler has privately made a case to Pelosi for opening an impeachment inquiry, and he suggested opinion could shift: “The American people right now do not support it because they do not know the story. They don’t know the facts. We have to get the facts out. We have to hold a series of hearings. We have to hold the investigations.”

So far, Democrats have been stymied in their efforts to do that. Trump had blocked White House officials — and even former White House officials — from testifying at the hearings that Nadler and others envision. Subpoenas have been ignored. And Democrats are at a loss for other ways to grab the public’s attention.

“If you have some creative ideas, we’re happy to hear them,” said Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-Pa., a freshman lawmaker who serves as vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee. She added, “I’m happy to do interpretive dance of the Mueller report if that’s what it takes.”

Some Democrats privately concede that the president’s Republican critics, few as they are, have done a better job than those from the opposition party in making a case about the gravity of Mueller’s findings and the threat they believe he poses to the rule of law.

Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, the lone House Republican who has concluded Trump’s behavior warrants impeachment, has posted a series of widely read threads on Twitter laying out a case that Trump “engaged in impeachable conduct.” His town hall-style meeting over the Memorial Day recess got more attention than any event held by a Democrat.

And a group of former government officials and party stalwarts calling themselves Republicans for the Rule of Law have cut a series of ads detailing some of Mueller’s obstruction of justice findings and calling out their fellow conservatives for ignoring them.

Democrats’ clearest move remains calling Mueller to testify. House Democratic aides have been in negotiations with Mueller’s staff for weeks, unable to agree on how much of his testimony should be public, and it is unclear if or when they would move to issue a subpoena for him to appear.

On Wednesday, Mueller said he was not interested in taking the witness stand. The report, he said, was “my testimony” and if called, he would not deviate from its contents.

But Democrats believe Mueller would have a hard time refusing a subpoena.

“There is value in him just saying out loud and before television cameras that which is already in the report, even if it goes no further,” said Brian Fallon, a Democratic strategist and executive director of Demand Justice, an advocacy group.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, agreed: “I heard someone say if we could just get Mueller to sit in the committee and read the report, eight hours a day, five days a week, it would probably have a much bigger impact on the American public. We’re a visual country. That’s how we accept our news.”

Democrats are also likely to escalate their fight with the White House.

The House could vote as early as the second week of June on contempt of Congress citations to punish Attorney General William Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn for defying House subpoenas for documents and testimony related to the Mueller report. That would allow Democrats to go to court to try to enforce the subpoenas.

The Judiciary Committee also has outstanding subpoenas demanding public testimony in June from two other witnesses cited by Mueller: Hope Hicks, former White House communications director; and Annie Donaldson, McGahn’s chief of staff. It is likely that they, too, will defy the subpoenas in deference to the White House, courting additional contempt citations.

Democrats have entertained other options short of impeachment, such as summoning former federal prosecutors to hearings to evaluate the strength of the evidence in Mueller’s report and calling legal experts to debate the definition of impeachable offenses. An aide to Democratic leaders said relevant House committees met over the recess to begin to map out legislation meant to secure elections and constrain Trump’s “abuses.”

As Democratic presidential candidates become more vocal and more rank-and-file Democrats call for impeachment, Pelosi runs the risk of looking out of step with her party, but she remains confident in her strategy for now, those close to her say. Unless and until a broader portion of the public supports impeachment, she believes the House is better off plodding down its course of oversight and lawsuits that keep a cloud over Trump’s head.

Some Democrats have circulated private polling assembled for Law Works Action, a bipartisan group that tests messaging around the special counsel’s investigation, that shows support for beginning impeachment proceedings, even among Democrats, does not top 50%. But the results also suggest that there is room to shift voters’ views by stressing the cases of possible obstruction, witness tampering and lying by the president.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., a member of the Intelligence Committee, said the speaker had her eye not on the views of liberal lawmakers like herself in safe Democratic districts but those who captured Republican seats and had a pulse on independent and swing voters.

“I think she is wisely playing for time until she can gauge sentiment,” Himes said. “This is somewhere near the final chapter of her career, and she is not going to get this wrong or get pushed around by elements of the caucus.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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