Democrats aren’t done.
Sunday’s news that Robert Mueller unearthed no evidence that Donald Trump’s campaign team colluded with Russia might deny Democrats the grounds to seek impeachment. But Democratic leaders see potential in one portion of Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the special counsel’s findings: an opening to argue that the president obstructed justice.
That now will trigger a relentless series of hearings, investigations and possible court challenges from the Democratic-run House aimed at discrediting the GOP throughout the 2020 election campaign.
“Attorney General Barr’s letter raises as many questions as it answers, said a joint statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
“The fact that Special Counsel Mueller’s report does not exonerate the president on a charge as serious as obstruction of justice demonstrates how urgent it is that the full report and underlying documentation be made public without any further delay,” they said.
And, the leaders stressed, “Given Mr. Barr’s public record of bias against the Special Counsel’s inquiry, he is not a neutral observer and is not in a position to make objective determinations about the report.”
The Democrats have three primary political missions for the next 19 months: Toppling Trump in 2020, gaining control of the U.S. Senate and maintaining control of the House.
Impeachment is all but out of the playbook. Even before Mueller’s report, Pelosi had been reluctant to begin impeachment proceedings unless there is Republican support. The top findings of the Mueller report appeared to erase that prospect.
Within minutes of Barr’s release, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said, “This case is closed,” and other Republican lawmakers echoed that view. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tweeted, “The cloud hanging over President Trump has been removed by this report.”
Even if the House, where Democrats have a 235 to 197 majority, were to act, the Republican-led Senate is now even more likely to ignore any such action.
Barr on Sunday told top congressional Judiciary Committee members that Mueller found no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. He also noted that while Mueller found “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it does not exonerate him.”
Democratic leaders demanded to know more.
“Americans deserve to know all the facts, which is why the report itself should be released - to the fullest extent of the law - in addition to the Attorney General’s summary,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
The action in the House is likely to unfold on at least three fronts in multiple committee:
▪ Judiciary. “There must be full transparency in what Special Counsel Mueller uncovered to not exonerate the president from wrongdoing,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, in a tweet minutes after Barr’s memo was released. “DOJ owes the public more than just a brief synopsis and decision not to go any further in their work.”
His committee has already sent out requests for information to dozens of current and former administration officials. Nadler said Sunday he wants Barr to testify “in the near future,” and members said more needs to be known.
“The Special Counsel did not exonerate the president. In fact, according to the attorney general’s letter, he described a pattern of evidence suggesting the President engaged in obstruction of justice,” said Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat and committee member.
▪ Oversight and Government Reform and Foreign Affairs committees have been looking into Trump’s communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as Trump’s financial interests with entities in Russia.
▪ Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, has tweeted “Mueller’s investigation began as a counterintelligence inquiry into whether individuals associated with the Trump campaign were compromised by a foreign power. By law, that evidence he uncovered must be shared with our Committee. And his report must also be made public. Now.”
Some Democrats said they were skeptical of taking Barr’s word for what’s in the Mueller report.
“Why the heck would we be okay with an ally of president, appointed because of his hostility to the Mueller investigation, tell us what the report says?” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, asked via Twitter. “Give Congress the report. Give the public the report.”
Previewing their position that will be the basis of their arguments for months to come, Democrats noted that Mueller had a narrow charge: to investigate potential cooperation with Russian interference in the 2016 election, as well as whether there were efforts to obstruct the investigation.
But he also referred lines of inquiry into the Trump campaign, the administration and the inauguration to other agencies, including the Southern District of New York.
“It’s the end of the beginning but it’s not the beginning of the end,” Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, told reporters before the summary was released. “It’s important to remember that whatever is concluded by Robert Mueller, it doesn’t mean that the president and his core team are free of legal jeopardy from these other proceedings.”
He noted that Congress has broader authority than Mueller.
“Our mandate is to conduct appropriate oversight and to act in the interest of transparency and to make sure that if there’s inappropriate conduct by the administration or folks in that campaign that we learn what lessons there are and act on them,” he said.
Still, Democrats could face the very real risk of overreach, handing Trump a weapon to accuse them of being sore losers.
Speaking to reporters at Palm Beach International Airport before returning to Washington, Trump called the report a “complete and total exoneration.”
He called it an “illegal takedown that failed,” adding, “hopefully somebody is going to be looking at the other side.”
Other Republicans were quick to warn Democrats against continuing to pursue investigations of the administration.
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia and a top House Judiciary Committee Republican, said the report should give Nadler “the chance to rethink his sprawling investigation, which retreads ground already covered by the special counsel.”
“I hope he recognizes that what may be political fodder for Democrats may not be good for our country,” Collins said of Nadler.
The Democrats’ key targets next year are five Republican-held Senate seats seen as vulnerable. Democrats need a net gain of four seats to win control of the chamber, three if the party’s presidential candidate wins.
Georgia, North Carolina and Arizona are regarded as the best opportunities for Democrats. Each has changing demographics; Arizona elected a Democratic senator last year, North Carolina has a Democratic governor and Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial candidate narrowly lost. Democrats are also eyeing GOP-held seats in Maine and Colorado, states Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
The House targets for both parties are 31 seats in districts that Democrats won last year but Trump won in 2016. Trump won by 13 in South Carolina’s 1st District,for instance, but Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Democrat, won his seat with 50.6 percent last year. In Georgia, Rep. Lucy McBath, a Democrat, won last year with 50.5 percent in a Trump-won district.
Republicans currently need a net gain of 18 seats to win control of the House in next year’s elections.