Pres­i­dent’s rift with GOP gives Democrats a chance to re­in­force Rus­sia probe

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - PAUL KANE paul.kane@wash­post.com

Democrats may have a new open­ing to set bound­aries on Pres­i­dent Trump’s au­thor­ity over the in­ves­ti­ga­tions into his 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

For the past week, Trump and his al­lies have been ham­mer­ing away at Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell (R-Ky.) over the GOP’s failed at­tempt to re­peal and re­place the Af­ford­able Care Act. Trump has mocked Mc­Connell and his lieu­tenants on so­cial me­dia for aban­don­ing the health-care ef­fort. Cou­pled with Trump’s re­cent at­tacks on At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions, the rift be­tween the pres­i­dent and Se­nate Repub­li­cans is grow­ing.

Now the ques­tion is whether Democrats can seize on th­ese mo­ments and ex­tract re­sults in putting up bar­ri­ers among Trump, the Jus­tice De­part­ment and spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

So far, Democrats have de­voted most of their time to forg­ing a new pol­icy agenda to show vot­ers next year what they would do if given power. They want vot­ers to know the party would do more than just in­ves­ti­gate Trump and fo­cus on scan­dals.

That fo­cus has left a void in their mes­sag­ing re­gard­ing the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion. It some­times leads to a ca­coph­ony of voices and ideas shouted into the winds of the In­ter­net ev­ery time there’s a new rev­e­la­tion about Trump’s cam­paign and ties to Rus­sia.

Some Democrats want to forge a broad bi­par­ti­san coali­tion to put the brakes on Trump, even if it means set­ting aside pol­icy dis­putes for the time be­ing.

“We’re go­ing to need a tem­po­rary al­liance of pro­gres­sives and con­ser­va­tives to save the coun­try, and then we can get back to fight­ing over the size and scope of the gov­ern­ment,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said in an in­ter­view be­fore Congress left ear­lier this month for the Au­gust re­cess. “This is a na­tional emer­gency, and we’re go­ing to have to lay down our arms on some of th­ese pub­lic-pol­icy is­sues long enough to re­assert that there are, in fact, three sep­a­rate, co­equal branches of gov­ern­ment and we are a coun­try of laws and not men.”

But oth­ers sug­gest that in­ves­ti­ga­tions by Mueller and the House and Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees are well un­der­way and that Democrats need pa­tience.

“We’re se­ri­ously into it, and I have to say that the Repub­li­cans, they’re not ob­struct­ing any­more. They are all mov­ing for­ward, and they all un­der­stand how se­ri­ous this is,” said Sen. An­gus King (Maine), an in­de­pen­dent who cau­cuses with the Democrats and serves on the in­tel­li­gence panel.

This Demo­cratic dilemma was cap­tured the night that Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) posted an excerpt from his new book, “Con­science of a Con­ser­va­tive,” crit­i­ciz­ing con­gres­sional Repub­li­can lead­ers for not force­fully con­fronting Trump dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign.

Three top Demo­cratic strate­gists re­acted com­pletely dif­fer­ently to the Ari­zona Repub­li­can’s crit­i­cism of his own party. “Brave and well ar­gued. I hope both sides have his back,” tweeted Robby Mook, 2016 cam­paign man­ager for Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Hil­lary Clin­ton.

“I’m much more con­cerned with his ac­tual vot­ing record. Writ­ing a col­umn is a lot eas­ier than vot­ing against TrumpCare,” tweeted Guy Ce­cil, head of the pro-Clin­ton su­per PAC Pri­or­i­ties USA.

Brian Fal­lon, a top press aide in the Clin­ton cam­paign, called the Flake book the equiv­a­lent of “just a bunch” of tweets “un­til it is matched by any real ac­tion.”

For now, there has been lit­tle to no ef­fort by Democrats to de­fine “any real ac­tion.” Do they ex­pect Repub­li­cans to vote against Trump’s pol­icy po­si­tions be­cause of the shadow of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion? Do they want to push for im­peach­ment pro­ceed­ings? Do they want Repub­li­cans to join Flake in a cho­rus of Trump crit­i­cism?

Sen. Chris Mur­phy (D-Conn.) wants Repub­li­cans to start back­ing up their cri­tiques of Trump with leg­isla­tive ac­tion.

Af­ter Trump tried to im­ple­ment an en­try ban af­fect­ing sev­eral ma­jor­ity-Mus­lim na­tions, Mur­phy in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion to block the ex­ec­u­tive or­der and hoped for bi­par­ti­san sup­port, given how many Repub­li­cans crit­i­cized Trump’s call for such a ban dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

“I heard a lot of Repub­li­cans vig­or­ously com­plain about the Mus­lim ban, but none of them were will­ing to move leg­is­la­tion to stop it,” Mur­phy said.

He ap­plauded Repub­li­cans for join­ing Democrats in ap­prov­ing new sanc­tions against Rus­sia, over­whelm­ingly pass­ing leg­is­la­tion that also tied Trump’s hands if he tried to waive those penal­ties.

A good first step for Democrats might be pres­sur­ing more Repub­li­cans to sup­port pro­posed leg­is­la­tion that would re­strict a pres­i­dent’s abil­ity to fire a spe­cial coun­sel, con­sid­er­ing that two high­pro­file Repub­li­cans are al­ready sup­port­ing such an ef­fort.

Sens. Lind­sey O. Gra­ham (RS.C.) and Thom Til­lis (R-N.C.) have each joined Democrats to of­fer bills that would re­quire a panel of judges to sign off on the fir­ing of Mueller or any spe­cial coun­sel. This would limit the pres­i­dent’s and the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s abil­ity to shut down the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Given Se­nate Repub­li­cans’ cur­rent feel­ings to­ward Trump, Democrats might be able to get many Repub­li­cans to sign on to one or both bills, send­ing a warn­ing shot to­ward the pres­i­dent.

Schatz said those are the sort of ac­tions that he seeks in Repub­li­cans, hop­ing that more of them would pub­licly de­clare that “one of the bright lines” that Trump can­not cross would be fir­ing Ses­sions or Mueller.

Schatz, firmly in his cau­cus’s lib­eral wing, dis­missed his al­lies who are crit­i­cal of Repub­li­cans for con­tin­u­ing to vote in a con­ser­va­tive di­rec­tion. He does not ex­pect Repub­li­cans to start op­pos­ing con­ser­va­tive leg­is­la­tion or nom­i­nees such as Supreme Court Jus­tice Neil M. Gor­such just be­cause Trump is pres­i­dent.

“That’s a mis­un­der­stand­ing of who Jeff Flake is; he’s a con­ser­va­tive,” Schatz said. “We can’t ex­pect them to be­come Democrats, but we want them to be small-R repub­li­cans, and we need them to help the pres­i­dent un­der­stand what the bound­aries are in a repub­lic.”

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