WASHINGTON — House Democrats angling to spotlight damning allegations from special counsel Robert Mueller’s report are focusing Wednesday on contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The House Intelligence Committee has invited two former leaders of the FBI’s national security branch to testify about the counterintelligence implications of Mueller’s investigation. Mueller did not find a criminal conspiracy between the campaign and Russia but did detail a series of interactions and outreach that have alarmed Democrats and accelerated calls from some in the party for impeachment proceedings and renewed investigations.
Both ex-FBI officials, Robert Anderson and Stephanie Douglas, retired from the bureau before it launched its investigation into the Trump campaign in summer 2016. By inviting them instead of agents involved in the investigation, Democrats are giving center stage to longtime career officials likely to be seen as more neutral and devoid of the political baggage that accompanies some of President Donald Trump’s more outspoken critics, including former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe and former agent Peter Strzok. Both were fired last year.
It is unclear whether Republicans will seek to undermine the credibility of the witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing, or merely try to minimize their testimony by noting that they weren’t part of the investigation.
The hearing is the latest in a series by Democrats to focus on aspects of Mueller’s report. It comes two days after the House Judiciary Committee heard from John Dean, the former White House counsel in the Nixon administration, who described how the Watergate investigation could function as a roadmap for probes into the current president.
It also comes as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been brushing back calls for impeachment, saying Tuesday that “it’s not even close” to having enough support.
The House voted 229-191 Tuesday to approve a sweeping resolution that will allow Democrats to accelerate their legal battles with the Trump administration. They’re preparing Wednesday to hold more Trump officials in contempt for defying congressional subpoenas.
It’s all pointing to an inside-outside strategy as Pelosi tries to boost public interest in the findings of the Trump-Russia probe while digging into a legal strategy aimed at forcing the administration into compliance with congressional oversight.
“We need answers to the questions left unanswered by the Mueller report,” Pelosi said on the House floor ahead of voting.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy countered that the Democratic maneuvers are all “just a desperate attempt to re-litigate the Mueller investigation.”
Said McCarthy, “It’s an impeachment effort in everything but name.”
Earlier in the day Pelosi all but ignored questions about impeachment during a policy conference, saying the Democrats’ strategy is “legislating, investigating, litigating” — in that order.
Pressed about Trump, she said: “I’m done with him. I don’t even want to talk about him.”
The far-reaching House resolution approved Tuesday empowers committee chairs to sue top Trump administration officials — Attorney General William Barr, former White House Counsel Don McGahn and others — to force compliance with congressional subpoenas, including those for Mueller’s full report and his underlying evidence.
The move makes it easier to sue Trump administration officials and potential witnesses by empowering committee chairmen to take legal action without a vote of the full House, as long as they have approval from a bipartisan group of House leaders.
The Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, urged his colleagues to support the legislation “so we can get into court and break the stonewall without delay.”
It’s unclear how quickly Democrats will go to court once the resolution is approved. House leaders signaled they will hold off on suing Barr after the panel struck a deal with the Justice Department to receive some underlying materials from Mueller’s report.
A court case could come more quickly for McGahn, who has defied subpoenas for documents and testimony at the behest of the White House.
McGahn is in “a particularly vulnerable situation” as a private person no longer employed by the government, said Rep. Hakeem Jefferies, D-N.Y., a member of the leadership team. “He should begin to cooperate immediately or face the consequences.”
Tuesday’s vote reflects an evolving strategy for Democrats, who have moved toward lawsuits and away from criminal contempt as they investigate the Trump administration. Criminal contempt would be referred to the Justice Department, where it would certainly be rejected. In the courts, meanwhile, Democrats have scored some early wins over Trump.
Easing tensions with Barr, at least for now, Nadler said the panel will not vote to hold the attorney general in criminal contempt. But with Tuesday’s vote to authorize civil legal action, Democrats made clear that they are still willing to go to court if necessary.
The ramped-up actions this week are intended to mollify some of impatient Democratic lawmakers, while also seeking to deepen the public’s understanding of Mueller’s findings.
Also Wednesday, the president’s son Donald J. Trump Jr. is scheduled to testify behind closed doors before the Senate Intelligence Committee.