Trump Spoils for Impeachment Fight With Democrats to Fuel 2020 Bid

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s advisers are pushing him to defy congressional investigations in hopes of luring Democrats into escalating a fight that they say will turn voters against the party in the 2020 elections.

The advisers are counting on news coverage of the battle with Congress -- including Democrats’ raising the possibility of impeachment -- distracting attention from candidates vying to replace Trump, and are portraying the president as a victim of partisan gamesmanship.

Trump Spoils for Impeachment Fight With Democrats to Fuel 2020 Bid

Democrats are playing into their script. The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday is set to vote on holding Attorney General William Barr in contempt for missing a subpoena deadline to turn over an unredacted version of Mueller’s report. Trump advisers also see an upside from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s warning on Tuesday that the administration’s defiance of subpoenas could lead to impeachment proceedings.

“It won’t turn out well for them,” said Trump’s campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh. “The fact that Democrats want to continue the witch hunt shows that they have no interest in legislating and only care about politics.”

Late Tuesday, the Justice Department told House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler that Barr would ask Trump to invoke executive privilege to prevent the unredacted report from being shared with the panel.

“I hereby request that the committee hold the subpoena in abeyance and delay any vote on whether to recommend a citation of noncompliance with the subpoena, pending the presidents determination of this question,” Stephen Boyd, assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, wrote to Nadler in a letter.

The administration further advanced its strategy on Tuesday by telling former White House Counsel Don McGahn not to comply with a subpoena from House Democrats to turn over documents. Trump tweeted over the weekend that Special Counsel Robert Mueller shouldn’t testify to Congress, and on Monday Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin refused a request to turn over Trump’s tax returns.

At one of his recent political rallies, Trump attacked Nadler over his quest for documents related to his businesses. “These people are sick,” he told a crowd in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The effort to turn Trump’s potential liabilities into a 2020 election advantage carries risks. The president’s refusal to turn over documents could lead voters to conclude he has something to hide and focus attention on the Mueller investigation, which painted an unflattering picture of Trump even if it didn’t result in a criminal indictment. That could turn off moderate and independent voters in key swing states like Pennsylvania.

‘Goading Us to Impeach’

Pelosi said at an event at Cornell University on Tuesday that Trump’s strategy poses a dilemma for Democrats. “Trump is goading us to impeach him, that’s what he’s doing every single day,” she said. “We can’t impeach him for political reasons, but we can’t not impeach him for political reasons.” But she added: “The facts and the law, and that will take us to the place that we need to be.”

Not everyone in her party agrees. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who is running for president, on Tuesday called for impeachment proceedings to begin and said politics shouldn’t be a factor.

Trump Spoils for Impeachment Fight With Democrats to Fuel 2020 Bid

“If any other human being in this country had done what’s documented in the Mueller report, they would be arrested and put in jail,” Warren said on the Senate floor Tuesday, before reading out extended excerpts of Mueller’s report. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “doesn’t want us to consider the mountain of evidence against the president. That is wrong.”

Representative Jamie Raskin, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in his view the failure to comply with subpoenas is akin to the actions in the third impeachment article voted out of committee against Richard Nixon.

“You can’t obstruct the special counsel’s work and you can’t obstruct the work of Congress,” the Maryland Democrat said. “The Supreme Court has said that the power of inquiry and investigation is central to the legislative function.”

White House advisers say cooperating with Democrats provides little advantage as many voters have already made up their mind about Trump’s character. Records from Trump’s business or time as president could reveal damaging information for Democrats to use against him.

Trump’s allies are trying to portray the president as already having cooperated with Mueller’s investigation, which left open the question of whether he obstructed justice but didn’t find evidence that he conspired with Russia’s efforts to meddle in U.S. elections. Trump and his allies also have questioned the merits of the investigation.

Learning From Clinton

People close to Trump say they have learned lessons from GOP battles with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Following Clinton’s impeachment in the House, his popularity rose and he went on to be a Democratic party stalwart while Republicans suffered major losses in Congress.

Trump’s approval rating jumped after Barr released a letter in March clearing Trump of obstruction of justice and coordinating with Russian election interference efforts, going from 39 percent approval to 45 percent -- one of the highest levels of his presidency.

Mueller said in a letter to Barr that he mischaracterized the findings and a redacted version of the full report released April 18 provided a much less favorable assessment of Trump’s actions, including a dozen instances that could amount to obstruction.

But Trump’s approval rating has been little changed since, according to the most recent survey by Gallup on April 30. Democrats have said Barr’s letter allowed Trump to set an early narrative before the more nuanced version of the report was released.

Democrats said they have little choice but to continue fighting back against the White House’s failure to comply with their requests, directly challenging Congress’s investigative and oversight responsibilities.

“That could be part of an impeachable offense” against Trump, Pelosi said. “Every day he’s obstructing justice by saying this one should testify, that one shouldn’t testify.”

House Democrats say the Trump administration has either refused to respond or slow-walked document requests at least 35 times since January. Administration officials have also refused to appear before House committees at least nine times this year, they said.

The White House has made some accommodations to Democrats. After months of back-and-forth letters over Democrats’ investigations into the White House security clearance process, the administration eventually allowed Carl Kline, a former official who oversaw security clearances, to be questioned behind closed doors and allowed congressional staff to review some documents.

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