The biggest difference I see between Robert Mueller and Kenneth Starr is that the former’s shop simply does not leak. The Office of Special Counsel fields comment requests many times a day, and they rarely have a single thing to say. It’s true that they have communicated with Congress about certain aspects of the investigation, including giving some guidance about witnesses and areas that might in some way complicate their work. They don’t want a repeat of the Oliver North debacle where a guilty person went free because Congress granted them some immunity in return for their testimony. The OSC wants to maintain some control over what testimony becomes public so that witnesses aren’t tipped off about the progress of their investigation. But there’s no real intimation that Mueller is working closely with Congress. When House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler said on MSNBC this week that he watches their network to learn about when Mueller might complete his work, it was quite believable.
As a result, it’s hard to gauge how much coordination with the OSC has gone on as the House Democrats craft their oversight strategies for the 116th Congress. Based on reporting in the New York Times, it seems clear that the Democrats are keen to tamp down expectations. There will be no immediate effort to obtain Trump’s tax returns, for example, and House Intelligence Committee member Jim Himes of Connecticut says we shouldn’t expect a full-bore reopening of the Russia investigation.
“We are conscious of the fact that the Senate continues to do their work, Mueller continues to do his work, and at this point in the game, I would not expect the committee to announce an omnibus investigation,” Mr. Himes said. “The time has passed for that.”
They certainly aren’t taking impeachment off the table, but they are trying keep their options open and not appear to be prejudging the case. House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff of California told the Los Angeles Times editorial board that the Democrats will weigh any possible impeachment against the likelihood of a conviction in the Senate:
Schiff also signaled that if Mueller releases a report implicating Trump in criminal wrongdoing, House Democratic leaders were not inclined to impeach Trump if it appears the Republicans who control the Senate will refuse to convict him and remove him from office.
In his former job as a federal prosecutor, he said, “it was not our tradition or habit or policy to indict people that we did not believe we could prove guilty in trial and convict merely to put them through the process of a trial or to expose wrongdoing if we couldn’t persuade a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”
“I think the same is true in impeachment — that it’s a tremendously wrenching thing to put a country through, and it obviously has a deeply disruptive impact on the running of the government … and there are ordinary mechanisms to remove a president at the ballot box, and so to depart from that, you need a powerful reason, and I don’t think you undertake that process unless you have some expectation that it’s going to be successful.”
For those already convinced that Trump should be removed from office, this isn’t the kind of rhetoric they want to hear, but it’s really more about positioning than controlling expectations. For one thing, it reflects a recognition that Mueller will have to provide a report before summer if impeachment rather than an election is going to be the remedy. The House Democrats don’t expect to have time to redo the Russia investigation. What they’ve done instead is to give the OSC transcripts of the previously-classified witness interviews conducted during the last session of Congress, which they believe include several examples of easily-prosecutable perjury. They also intend to focus on a couple of potentially explosive areas. The first involves that infamous meeting in Trump Tower.
The [House Intelligence] panel’s new chairman, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, said it was initiating a request for phone records of the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., to clarify whom he called while arranging a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan between members of the Trump campaign and a Russian lawyer. Phone records already in the hands of congressional investigators show a call was placed to a blocked number, and Donald Trump Jr. told investigators that he did not remember who he had called. Democrats believe the blocked number may have belonged to his father, and could prove that the president had prior knowledge of the Russian offer to share dirt on his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The second involves a real estate deal you may have read about:
In the real estate case, Mr. Trump bought a Palm Beach estate for $41 million in 2004 and, only four years later, amid a national housing crisis, sold it to the Russian billionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev, for $95 million. Democrats say the deal stinks of potential money laundering.
Talking to Los Angeles Times editorial board, Chairman Schiff made clear why he thinks Trump’s financial dealings are so important:
Rep. Adam B. Schiff expressed concern Monday that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III might decline to look into President Trump’s private business dealings as he investigates Russia’s interference in America’s 2016 election.
As a result, the Burbank congressman said, it could be up to Democrats who took control of the House last week to expose the full scope of alleged wrongdoing by Trump and his allies, Schiff told the Los Angeles Times editorial board.
Schiff, a Democrat who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, cited the revelation by Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal lawyer, that Trump was actively pursuing a deal to build a skyscraper in Moscow during the 2016 campaign even while denying doing business with Russia.
“Now, the Russians knew this was happening, which makes it very compromising, because the Russians could expose it,” Schiff said.
As the audience for all this drama, we should distinguish between the conflicting messages the Democrats are sending out. They’re letting it be known that they don’t intend to turn the House into one giant whale-hunting expedition. A lot of their oversight will be focused on other areas like the treatment of asylum seekers at the border or efforts to game the upcoming census for the benefit of the GOP. They want people to understand that impeachment isn’t inevitable but will only come if the evidence is overwhelming enough to convince a lot of Senate Republicans.
Yet, it’s also clear that the key chairmen believe that Trump is likely compromised by the Russians. They are optimistic that they can help expose this and perhaps supplement Mueller’s investigation. Reading between the lines, they think that they (along with Mueller) will find the exact kind of evidence that would make impeachment a plausible endeavor.
Just this week we learned that Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort shared internal polling data with Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik and asked him to send it along to
a Russian oligarch with close connections to Vladimir Putin two Kremlin-aligned Ukrainian oligarchs. We also learned that Natalia Veselnitskaya, the woman who famously met with Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner in Trump Tower, has closer ties to the Kremlin than was previously known. If phone records confirm that the future president knew about the meeting despite all his assertions to the contrary, this will expose his son to criminal charges and could be very hard to explain to the even reluctant Republican senators. Unearthing more proof that Trump had undisclosed business dealings with the Russians, including witting money laundering, will further undermine the president’s position with his own party.
In the end, the Senate Republicans are unlikely to have veto power over impeachment in the House. Assuming Mueller reports in a timely fashion, an inquiry will be opened and will almost assuredly result in articles being voted out. As the Senate Republicans seethe about the government shutdown Trump has imposed on them, they become less inclined to save him with every passing day.