Democrats wrestle with how hard to go after Trump’s scandals

House Democrats have spent much of the year averting their gaze — and their most powerful investigative weapons — from a mounting list of President Donald Trump’s scandals. But new ones keep popping up whether they like it or not.

Now a debate is bubbling up inside the Democratic Caucus about just how aggressively to confront Trump’s latest alleged abuses, particularly just four months before an election in which the president has damaged himself with near-daily unforced errors and seen his standing slide in national polls. Democrats are also eager to avoid stomping on their own election year agenda.

The House has already deployed its strongest check on the president — impeachment — with no appetite among Democratic leadership or the rank and file to pursue the all-consuming process again, this time amid a global pandemic and national debate over police brutality and institutional racism.

But Democrats can take other steps to try to impose oversight. And the question of how to address what they view as Trump’s increasing lawlessness has become more difficult as Trump’s former top national security aide, John Bolton, leveled a string of jaw-dropping allegations about abuses of power by Trump in service of his reelection. That controversy was compounded by the abrupt weekend firing by Attorney General William Barr of the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, who has overseen several Trump-connected probes.

The caucus is not nearly as splintered as it was in the lead-up Trump’s impeachment, but while some members want an aggressive congressional response, senior House Democrats say there should be limits.

“We’re only a few weeks — less than 20 weeks from the election — and we need to be concentrating on winning,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), adding, “We don’t need to get bogged down in another impeachment.”

“I do think we ought to hold hearings and bring as much of the information to the public as possible between now and whenever. But I don’t think we ought to go any further,” Cleaver added.

In short, Democrats are balancing a desperate desire to defend institutions they say are being threatened by Trump with concerns that a push to investigate will detract from other urgent national concerns and potentially undermine their own political prospects — and could ultimately be fruitless with the election a few months away.

House House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer walks toward the Senate chambers on Thursday as the House prepares for a vote on Covid-19 legislation.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat, didn't downplay the need to hear from Barr and Bolton, but also acknowledged the difficult reality of slogging through the courts to enforce subpoenas or other measures before November.

“It’s a long and tortuous process,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “The election is coming up. We have some four months before that happens. And as a practical matter, getting a court case through that quickly may not be possible, frankly."

Hoyer isn’t alone. Many Democrats in the caucus have “impeachment fatigue” as one senior aide put it. And while all Democrats say they want to hold the president accountable, they also don’t want to lose sight of the ultimate goal — booting Trump out of the White House. Meanwhile, some of their decisions may be made for them, as the Supreme Court weighs cases that could supercharge long-stalled investigations, or sap their energy altogether.

Not everyone is content to wager waiting until Election Day and hoping former Vice President Joe Biden denies Trump a second term. Some Democratic lawmakers and aides would rather use their megaphone to highlight the administration’s scandals every day in the run-up to the election, reasoning that doing so will attract voters, not repel them.

The divide manifested itself Monday, when lawmaker and aides grappled with whether to issue a subpoena for Barr, who has avoided testifying to the Judiciary Committee since he was confirmed in early 2019. Some committee Democrats had been clamoring for a subpoena for weeks, but Chairman Jerry Nadler said the fight wouldn’t be worth months of litigation.

Yet Barr’s effort to remove Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, prompted Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Nadler to rethink the matter. After the two talked over the weekend, Nadler initiated the subpoena process on Monday.

The move took other Democrats on the Judiciary Committee by surprise after Nadler’s team indicated they weren’t inclined to subpoena Barr during a heated staff call earlier in the day.

Barr's conduct will again be the focus Wednesday, when the Judiciary Committee holds a hearing featuring testimony from two sitting Justice Department officials who plan to allege political interference by senior DOJ officials, including Barr. One of them, prosecutor Aaron Zelinsky, told the committee in written testimony that he and three colleagues were pressured to recommend a light sentence for longtime Trump associate Roger Stone, who was convicted last year of repeatedly lying to the House Intelligence Committee and intimidating a witness to impede an ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

And lawmakers still hope to press Barr about his role in federal security officers' decision to use force — including tear gas and flash-bang grenades — against peaceful protesters across the street from the White House earlier this month, just moments ahead of Trump's decision to hold a photo op in front of nearby St. John's Episcopal Church.

Despite the media’s attention on Berman’s firing and Bolton’s book, top Democrats have been more focused on this year’s agenda — a landmark police reform bill on the floor this week, and a massive infrastructure bill on the floor the next. And any barbs at Trump, Democratic campaign officials say, should be in line with the party’s message on health care.

Rep. Cheri Bustos, who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, sent a memo to vulnerable members this week urging them to focus on Trump’s other headline-grabbing move over the weekend — his claim at a Tulsa, Okla., rally that he has sought to slow down coronavirus testing amid a skyrocketing number of cases. The memo made no mention of the other scandals dogging Trump. That mirrors Democrats’ 2018 approach, when they zeroed in on GOP legislation to repeal Obamacare and strip millions of their health insurance.

Trump’s scandals also didn’t come up on a caucuswide call Monday, and Pelosi mentioned the possibility of subpoenaing Barr only “in passing” on a private leadership call later in the evening, according to Democrats on both calls.

Even some of the caucus’ most prominent liberal voices, many of whom advocated fiercely for impeachment, are pushing a more measured approach now.

“I think that there are certainly things to be gained by continuing to have people testify,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a member of the Judiciary panel.

But Jayapal, like several other Democratic lawmakers and aides interviewed for this story, didn’t explicitly back deploying subpoenas or other forceful measures to compel testimony from some of Trump’s closest current and former advisers.

“Who are the best people to tell that story? There’s a lot of choices, unfortunately, and I think we have to look at the whole picture and figure out what makes the most sense,” she said.

For many Democrats, even the most fervent supporters of impeaching Trump, the dwindling calendar is their dominant reality now.

The election is fast approaching and Trump continues to generate an almost incessant stream of bad headlines, all on his own, without Democrats’ help. Plus, by ceding some of the spotlight to Trump, Democrats say they are denying the pugnacious president a foil to pit himself against.

“We’re at the same disadvantage of the last 3½ years. He sucks all of the oxygen out in the room,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). “In terms of pushing out a message, we don’t have much of an opportunity to do that.”

The internal dispute over how to confront Trump is far less of a fractious divide than it was in the run-up to impeachment. House Democrats have been forced to direct their attention elsewhere as the coronavirus took tens of thousands of lives and devastated the economy, and the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer plunged the country into a wrenching debate over race and policing.

And at least some of the “frontline” Democrats — those facing difficult reelection fights — are expressing support for robust oversight of alleged transgressions by Trump. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who was also an early backer of impeachment, said his constituents understand the need to put a check on potential abuses.

“It's never a problem for me to stand up for the rule of law, so long as we are also taking care of health care and infrastructure and helping people survive Covid-19,” he said. “That’s not a difficult argument to make.”

The thorniest question for lawmakers is how to handle the allegations lodged by Bolton, whose new White House memoir suggests that Trump, among other potential abuses, pleaded with Chinese President Xi Jinping to purchase American agricultural products from states crucial to Trump’s reelection. Bolton also alleges that Trump promised to influence U.S. prosecutors to do favors for foreign autocrats.

But House Democrats also have little fondness for Bolton, who infuriated the caucus last year when he refused to testify in the impeachment inquiry over Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate his Democratic adversaries.

Now, though, Bolton has publicly affirmed the details of the House’s inquiry and lodged even more damaging accusations. Democrats have wrestled over the past week with whether to seek Bolton’s sworn testimony once more, with House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff saying, “I don't think we should wait” if the book demands deeper investigation.

“A lot of it is not a surprise, but at the same time, exposure of this president's misconduct is the best way to protect the country,” Schiff said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “Congress can take steps to protect the country.”

The House’s investigative decisions may hinge partly on a looming Supreme Court decision about whether lawmakers can access Trump’s tax returns or personal financial data from his banks or accountant. The court’s ruling in that case could arm the House with reams of new information that suggest conflicts of interest between Trump and the countries with which he’s conducting foreign policy.

And there’s another imminent issue: Longtime Trump ally Roger Stone is slated to go to prison on June 30 for his conviction on charges of lying to Congress repeatedly during its investigation of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election.

Trump has strongly suggested a pardon or commutation would be forthcoming — sure to enrage Democrats who have treated any move to shield Stone from criminal consequences as potential obstruction of justice.

Whether Congress is able to secure testimony from key Trump administration figures in all of these fights is a difficult challenge for the House, but whether to at least make the attempt is up to them.

“I do think that is our duty,” said Malinowski. “If the administration refuses to allow people to testify, I don't think it's good for maintaining the right long-term balance between the branches of our government for Congress to say, whatever, it's not worth fighting about.”

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