Democrats struggle to counter Trump’s Roger Stone intervention

With impeachment no longer in their arsenal, Democrats are coming to terms with a new reality: they have few, if any, weapons to take on an emboldened President Donald Trump as he openly settles scores with his political adversaries and continues breaching the wall between the Justice Department and Oval Office.

Democrats vented outrage Tuesday over Trump's attack on his own DOJ prosecutors and his demand of a lighter sentence for longtime ally Roger Stone. One after another, top Democrats in the House and Senate said Trump's 2 a.m. Twitter intervention further erodes the rule of law.

“Coupled with the president’s blatant retaliation against those who helped expose his wrongdoing, the Trump administration poses the gravest threat to the rule of law in America in a generation,” said House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, the lead prosecutor in Trump's impeachment trial.

Yet so far, Democrats are offering an unsettled array of responses that a post-impeachment Congress can make to rein in Trump or highlight alleged transgressions by the president.

Some are calling for new investigations and attempts at traditional congressional oversight. Others are suggesting that Democrats could withhold appropriations from key agencies to get answers to their investigative inquiries. Others say DOJ watchdogs should investigate and others still say any response to Trump's behavior is now up to voters in the November elections.

In other words, lawmakers are still struggling with how to approach post-impeachment conduct by Trump after an all-consuming trial failed to remove the president from office.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi offered a harsh rebuke to Trump, but only made a vague push for an investigation.

"By tweet @realDonaldTrump engaged in political interference in the sentencing of Roger Stone," Pelosi (D-Calif.) tweeted. "It is outrageous that DOJ has deeply damaged the rule of law by withdrawing its recommendation. Stepping down of prosecutors should be commended & actions of DOJ should be investigated."

Meanwhile, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) called for exploring options. "We need to reconsider what we can do through the power of the purse, through other kinds of authority that we have," he said. "We're restrategizing."

It's a challenge Democrats will be forced to confront in the coming weeks, as the 2020 presidential election diverts attention from Capitol Hill at the same time Trump's White House has vowed a campaign of "payback" against those who testified in or carried out the impeachment inquiry against him.

Trump was acquitted last week by the Senate on charges that he abused his power by pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate his Democratic adversaries and then obstructed the House's investigation of the matter. In the days since his acquittal, two of the top witnesses in the inquiry — National Security Council aide Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland — were removed from their posts.

Stone is facing a Feb. 20 sentencing for his conviction on charges he lied to House investigators pursuing another Trumpian scandal: whether anyone in the president’s orbit conspired with Russians to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Though former special counsel Robert Mueller declined to bring charges against any American in his parallel investigation of the matter, his team charged Stone with repeatedly misleading House investigators and threatening another witness to mislead the committee. Prosecutors on Monday recommended that Stone face seven to nine years in prison, a reflection, they said, of the fact that the investigation he impeded struck at the core of democracy and that he repeatedly violated gag orders imposed by the judge in the case.

After an outcry among allies of Trump and Stone, Trump assailed the recommendation by DOJ's prosecutors on Twitter. "This is a horrible and very unfair situation," Trump tweeted early Tuesday morning. "The real crimes were on the other side, as nothing happens to them. Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!"

The Justice Department soon backed off the sentencing recommendation, deeming the initial proposal "excessive." A senior official there said the plan was in motion before Trump's tweet. Yet within hours, four top prosecutors in the matter, Aaron Zelinsky, Jonathan Kravis, Adam Jed and Michael Marando, withdrew from the case.

Trump later on Tuesday denied speaking to the Justice Department about Stone’s sentencing but said he had the “absolute right” to do it.

“I’d be able to do it if I wanted. I have the absolute right to do it,” he told reporters. “I thought the recommendation was ridiculous. I thought the whole prosecution was ridiculous.”

Asked about the unfolding conflict, Democrats raised alarms but offered varying calls to action.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 12: Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) asks Deputy Assistant FBI Director Peter Strzok a question on July 12, 2018 in Washington, DC.  Strzok testified before a joint committee hearing of the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees. While involved in the probe into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server in 2016, Strzok exchanged text messages with FBI attorney Lisa Page that were critical of Trump. After learning about the messages, Mueller removed Strzok from his investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Alex Edelman/Getty Images)

"Let's wait and see if in fact the president's attempt, if true, is successful," said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, who indicated he was hopeful the judge in Stone's case, Amy Berman Jackson, would ignore the DOJ drama and deliver a sentence that fits Stone's conviction.

Some Democrats are renewing calls for Attorney General William Barr to testify about Trump's involvement in Justice Department decisions, but Barr has declined to appear before the House Judiciary Committee since taking his post last year. He last testified to the House when he appeared before an appropriations subcommittee last April — a fact Democrats pointed out repeatedly last week when FBI Director Christopher Wray testified at an oversight hearing.

"The DOJ owes an immediate explanation for how this decision was made, what conversations occurred and exactly who was involved," said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), a member of the Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, who was also one of the impeachment prosecutors.

"This is the Trumpification of the Department of Justice," said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), a member of the Intelligence Committee. Asked about a congressional response, Krishnamoorthi said, "I think that we have to continue to press on our oversight responsibilities."

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer sent a letter Tuesday to DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz requesting an investigation into the decision to reduce the sentencing recommendation for Stone, injecting another possible recourse for lawmakers if they can't get answers on their own.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 08:  House Judiciary Committee member Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) questions Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker during an oversight hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill February 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. Following a subpoena fight between committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and the Justice Department, Whitaker was questioned about his oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the No. 4 Democrat in the House and another of the seven impeachment prosecutors, said at a Tuesday news conference that although he believes Trump is continuing the type of behavior that got him impeached in the first place, the matter is now up to voters.

"This is all now in the hands of the American people to decide what they should do with the wrongdoing that is hiding in plain sight," he said.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans were unbothered by Trump's call for a lighter Stone sentence.

"Ultimately, the sentencing decision is up to the judge. Nothing's happened yet," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said. "I'd wait and see what the judge decides to do. ... I don't think [Trump] has crossed a constitutional line."

Asked about Trump's tweets about Stone, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said it was "unfortunate" that people who "got caught up in" the Mueller probe faced charges on "process crimes."

"In the end," Johnson said, "the president controls the executive branch."

If the House does make a concerted response, it will likely originate in the Judiciary Committee. Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), another one of the seven impeachment prosecutors in Trump's trial, vowed that his panel would “get to the bottom” of the Stone matter.

Earlier in the day, Nadler said that post-impeachment, Trump has shown he's been emboldened rather than chastened, despite some GOP senators who were sure he'd be more cautious.

“His posture for the last few days has simply shown that he learned nothing,” Nadler said, “and that he’s more dangerous to democracy than ever.”

Andrew Desiderio and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.

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