Dems tread cautiously on Trump investigations after impeachment
As a result, the investigations that animated the House’s Trump-focused oversight work since taking the majority in 2019 has gone relatively quiet — just as Trump has embarked on a government-wide retribution campaign and appeared less restrained than ever before.
The change in posture is an acknowledgment, House Democrats say, that in a world where Senate Republicans are bear-hugging Trump, and the courts are declining to operate at the speed of the congressional calendar, there are very few options that a single chamber of Congress can pursue short of withholding funds for agencies like the Justice Department — particularly when impeachment is no longer in their election-year arsenal.
“There is nothing that Donald Trump can do that would cause [Senate Republicans] to convict him of high crimes and misdemeanors,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who serves on the House Judiciary Committee. “So that has caused everybody in the House to take a deep breath and figure out what our next steps are.”
“That leaves us legislative and political answers,” Raskin added.
In other words, the end of the impeachment process has become the advent of a new, narrower focus on what Democrats say is a crucial theme revealed by their efforts: Trump’s indifference to, or even encouragement of, foreign interference in the 2020 election. It’s a throughline, they say, of Trump’s behavior toward Russia, his treatment of Ukraine and his public comments on whether he would reject foreign help in future elections.
Now, rather than revive the smashmouth impeachment approach that they adopted throughout the fall and winter, Democrats say they intend to use their investigative weapons to highlight these election security themes and keep pressure on Republicans who chided Trump for his behavior in Ukraine but ultimately acquitted him for it.
“I would argue that impeachment actually served its purpose. It highlighted for people what we’re dealing with here and what the stakes are,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “I would say it set the table for people to take a good hard look at what I think impeachment helped to remind us of, what a threat that represents, and conveniently for us his behavior subsequently has only made our case for us.”
Democrats are pondering whether to pass new election security measures, putting them in the Senate’s court as the primary gets underway. And they’re planning to drive a consistent election security message as the nation’s focus shifts toward the November election.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced a March 10 intelligence community briefing for lawmakers, and she’s slammed Trump for what she says is politicizing the intelligence community, in part by installing Richard Grenell, a loyalist ambassador, as the acting director of national intelligence. News reports that Russia is already interfering in the upcoming election have returned the issue to the fore.
Separately, Democrats on Friday dusted off their Trump oversight tools and took the first steps to confront the president’s campaign of post-acquittal retribution. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) requested testimony from a slew of high-profile Justice Department officials about political interference in criminal cases — including four career prosecutors who quit the case of longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone earlier this month after the president intervened in his sentencing.
Since the near-party-line Senate acquittal vote, Trump has embarked on a government-wide effort to oust perceived opponents and install loyalists in senior national security roles. Trump also almost daily has assailed the judge and jury in Stone’s case as he seeks a new trial but faces a 40-month jail term for lying to House investigators. And Trump recently insinuated that New York state should drop investigations of him and his administration in order to receive more favorable treatment on national security matters, a comment one of the House’s impeachment prosecutors said proved Trump was “expanding his abuse of power to blackmailing U.S. states.”
Still, the absence of a focus on Ukraine, along with some Democrats’ urging to leave the president’s fate to the voters, is a shift from House Democrats’ forceful argument during the impeachment process that their focus on the issue must continue even in the event of a Senate acquittal. During the Senate trial, Democrats insisted that if Trump were acquitted, the integrity of the 2020 election — and indeed American democracy itself — would be at risk at the hands of a president thirsty for vengeance and believing himself free of accountability.
“For precisely this reason, the president’s misconduct cannot be decided at the ballot box, for we cannot be assured that the vote will be fairly won,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the House’s top impeachment prosecutor, argued on the Senate floor.
The House Intelligence Committee is declining to discuss the status of its Ukraine probe — or any others that may have begun since the impeachment trial — leaving open to prospect that its Trump-related work is continuing even though it has taken no public steps. That includes any actions to confront a series of loose ends.
“While we won’t specifically comment on any ongoing or new investigations that have not been publicly announced, the committee is continuing to pursue a number of investigations, along with the committee’s important oversight work focused on ensuring that our intelligence community is protecting the nation and our upcoming elections are free and fair,” said Patrick Boland, a spokesman for the Intelligence Committee.
Six Democrats, including two Intelligence Committee members, on Wednesday wrote to the World Bank head David Malpass about a trip he took to Ukraine in late August, while military aid was on hold and Trump’s allies continued to press Ukraine for politically motivated investigations.
But there are other indications that the Ukraine matter has moved off the frontburner.
When one witness to the Ukraine scandal, White House budget chief Russ Vought, came before the House Budget Committee earlier this month, no Democrats asked him about why millions of dollars in aid were withheld from Ukraine, even though he had defied a House Intelligence Committee subpoena to testify in November. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo faced questions from the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Friday about coronavirus and the administration handling of Iran policy, but no Democrats inquired about Ukraine, despite Pompeo defying demands for documents from House impeachment investigators last year.
In recent days, three of the House’s top lawyers leading the impeachment drive — Judiciary Committee lawyers Barry Berke and Norm Eisen, as well as Intelligence Committee counsel Dan Goldman – have left their posts to return to the private sector. All three helped drive the House’s Ukraine investigation and impeachment strategy and know the intricate details of the case.
Similarly, though Democrats focused the bulk of the Senate trial on convincing Republicans to call former national security adviser John Bolton as a witness, the House has taken no post-trial action to force Bolton’s testimony on their side, even as the ex-Trump aide has spent recent days giving public speeches. During Trump’s impeachment trial, the New York Times reported that Bolton wrote in his unpublished manuscript that the president told him that aid to Ukraine would remain frozen until the country helped with investigations into his political rivals.
One reason, Democrats say, is Bolton has made clear he would resist any such demands for his testimony from the Democrat-led House even though he said he’d testify to the Senate if subpoenaed, likely leading to a lengthy court battle that would extend well past the 2020 election. Bolton is slated to publish his book in March on his tenure in the White House, and Democrats have indicated the notes he took while working at Trump’s side could be valuable new evidence.
And Democrats absorbed a huge body blow to renewing its Mueller-related investigation Friday when a federal appeals court rejected its effort to compel testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn, a star witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In the 2-1 ruling, the court rejected the suggestion that Congress can sue to resolve this type of dispute with the Executive Branch, suggesting instead that Congress turn to its other tools: withholding appropriations, blocking nominations, censure, marshaling public opinion — and even impeachment. It’s unclear if the House will appeal that decision.
Another ruling is expected any day on the House’s suit to force the Justice Department to turn over Mueller’s grand jury material to congressional investigators.
In both cases, the House has argued that they need the testimony because they could form the basis of additional articles of impeachment against Trump, including for obstruction of justice. In fact, House lawyers had initially suggested that McGahn could have been made to testify during the Senate impeachment trial to provide evidence of a pattern of efforts by Trump to obstruct probes of his conduct.
Similarly, several House attempts to access Trump’s personal financial records are pending before the Supreme Court. The House filed a brief in that matter Wednesday but is unlikely to see a ruling until June.