House Democrats consider bills to 'safeguard democracy' in response to Mueller report

One likely piece of legislation would be framed as "Duty to Report," requiring presidential campaign aides to report foreign contacts to law enforcement.
Image: Nancy Pelosi
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has sought to downplay reports of division among House Democrats over whether to open impeachment proceedings.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Heidi Przybyla, Alex Moe and Mike Memoli

WASHINGTON — For months, top House Democrats have taken a deliberate approach on the question of impeachment, wary of moving too fast on the extraordinary constitutional option despite growing calls from their members to at least begin moving forward with the process.

Now, that cautious strategy could run the risk of further dividing Democrats as leadership shifts toward an aggressive legislative strategy instead of an impeachment inquiry.

In a meeting last week in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office, Democratic lawmakers gathered to craft a plan — including specific legislative fixes — to respond to the Mueller report and what Democrats see as numerous instances in which they say President Donald Trump appeared to obstruct justice in the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to multiple lawmakers and aides in attendance.

As Democrats prepare to launch a more "robust hearing and legislative strategy" across at least six committees to highlight the special counsel's investigation, they are discussing bills to magnify wrongdoing uncovered in Mueller's report, including contacts with Russian entities.

The focus on legislation in upcoming hearings would be designed "to rein in President Trump's abuses and safeguard our democracy from future attacks," said a leadership aide involved in the process.

It’s also a way of bringing to life the Mueller report for the public even though many key witnesses the Democrats had hoped to hear from, including top Trump aide Hope Hicks, and former White House counsel Don McGahn, are refusing subpoenas to testify and provide documents.

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Pelosi is hoping hearings around legislative fixes will highlight the worst wrongdoing contained in the Mueller report, and possibly broaden public support for impeachment. Pelosi has argued that launching impeachment hearings now could backfire on her party given that it would almost certainly go nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate and imperil Democrats' majority in the House in 2020.

One likely piece of legislation would be framed as "Duty to Report," requiring presidential campaign aides and entities to report foreign contacts and influence to law enforcement after Mueller identified numerous such interactions between Trump campaign aides and Russians in the course of the 2016 election that were never reported to the FBI, according to two aides familiar with the planning.

Also at the top of the menu is a package of legislation to address election security and obstruction of justice by a sitting president, potentially specifically prohibiting a president from interfering in law enforcement activity.

Other options under consideration are bills on pardon reform and facilitating intelligence sharing across agencies and state lines.

Still, the approach is unlikely to quell growing frustration among rank-and-file Democrats over what they see as the Trump administration's stonewalling of even routine oversight. A growing number of Democrats are now calling for an official impeachment inquiry, arguing that it could strengthen their ability to compel witnesses and obtain documents.

The Democrat-run House has issued at least 25 subpoenas since taking control of the House with little response from the Trump administration in return. They span numerous committees beyond the Judiciary Committee's standoff with Attorney General William Barr over obtaining classified materials from the Mueller report and include probes into the administration’s child separation policy and Trump’s tax returns.

Support for an official impeachment inquiry has broadened beyond progressives like Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., who’ve been advocating for impeachment even before the results of the Mueller report were public.

The list of House Democrats publicly supporting an impeachment inquiry has grown to nearly 60 and includes many members of the House Judiciary Committee who’d held back support for impeachment, such as Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Penn., as well as some powerful committee chairs including Homeland Security Chair Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., who chairs the Budget Committee.

That brings Democrats to a critical juncture in how to proceed. Congress is nearing the July Fourth holiday week and then the August recess, leaving little room before the 2020 campaign dominates the calendar. While polls show a majority of Americans oppose an impeachment inquiry, a CNN poll found some 76 percent of Democrats support it.

The legislative push will be done in tandem with more aggressive steps to compel witnesses to comply with lawfully issued subpoenas, aides said.

A resolution the House will consider Tuesday will help committee leaders move faster to address uncooperative witnesses. The process of enforcing subpoenas and pursuing contempt votes would typically take weeks or months to play out and eat up time on the House floor when lawmakers are set to begin considering funding bills. But the vote Tuesday will reaffirm the authority House committee chairs have to expedite going to court to enforce their subpoenas, bypassing an otherwise lengthy process.

Pelosi, meanwhile, is seeking to downplay division in her ranks.

"We know exactly what path we're on," she said last week. "We know exactly what actions we need to take ... that may take more time than some people want it to take."