House Democrats on Thursday kicked off plans to scrutinize President Donald Trump, his finances and his administration's policies with a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into the Trump campaign's alleged Russia ties, by giving him recourse if Trump tries to fire him.
The measure to give Mueller - or any special counsel - the right to swiftly appeal his termination to a panel of federal judges originated as a bipartisan measure in the Senate, after the president started making threats against his erstwhile attorney general, Jeff Sessions, and later Mueller himself. But in the House, it is being reintroduced by leading Judiciary Committee Democrats alone - a sign of how partisan lawmakers' approach to oversight of Trump and the federal law enforcement agencies may continue to be as Democrats take over the House majority.
Mueller's probe became a lightning rod for criticism under House Republican leadership, as GOP members alleged that bias displayed by certain FBI and Justice Department officials working on probes of Trump and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server compromised the origins of Mueller's probe. Their concerns drove a year-long investigation into the agencies' conduct, while Democrats charged that GOP lawmakers were simply trying to help the president undermine Mueller.
Those Democrats, now in charge, say the further Mueller's probe progresses, the more endangered he may be. And they have no faith that acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker - who ignored Justice Department ethics recommendations to recuse himself from supervising Mueller's probe - will stand up to Trump if he orders Mueller's firing.
"As the Special Counsel announced new indictments and guilty pleas from Trump's closest allies and associates, it's clear that the threat to the Mueller investigation will only grow stronger," Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., wrote in a statement with Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. "Now is the time for Congress to finally act and pass this legislation to protect the integrity of the Special Counsel's investigation and the rule of law."
Democrats will easily be able to pass the bill in the House, with or without significant Republican support. But the bill faces difficult odds in the Senate, where the bulk of the GOP has eschewed the measure's approach, either because they believe Trump would not be so politically reckless as to order his attorney general to fire Mueller or because they believe it would set an undesirable constitutional precedent by making the president's staffing decisions subject to judicial review.
Nonetheless, the fact that House Democrats made the Mueller protection bill their opening salvo, just hours after taking over the majority, signals the importance and influence the special counsel's probe and its findings will have as Democratic lawmakers use their committee gavels to investigate all aspects of Trump's orbit.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an interview with NBC's Today that Democratic leaders would not make a decision about whether to pursue impeachment of Trump until Mueller released his findings. Thus far, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., has announced plans to reintroduce articles of impeachment against the president, but the effort has not been embraced by leaders of the Judiciary Committee, where such proceedings would take place.
In the meantime, various panels have committed to do everything from release Trump's tax returns to challenge his zero-tolerance border policy that has resulted in the separation of immigrant children from their parents, as well as their detention. Those probes, however, are not expected to begin in earnest until later this month, after leaders have determined which members will sit on each committee - decisions panel leaders aren't expecting until later next week, due to leaders' immediate focus on ending the partial government shutdown.
Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said Thursday that his top priority will be a good-governance bill that addresses voting rights and money in politics - and "then, the census."
The Trump administration announced last year that it would be adding a question about citizenship status to the 2020 Census, prompting a spate of court challenges and public charges that the administration is trying to suppress responses from immigrant-heavy communities. Cummings plans to challenge that decision - and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for his claims about it - in a hearing before his panel.
Late Wednesday, the Senate confirmed Steve Dillingham as the new director of the U.S. Census Bureau.
As for the dozens of other letters and lines of inquiries the panel has sent to the administration, "we're going to see what kind of documents we get in," Cummings said, "and that's going to have a big bearing on what we do."