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Democrats moving on from Trump investigations to focus on ‘health care, health care, health care’

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the office of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Capitol Hill on Feb. 11, 2020.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the office of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Capitol Hill on Feb. 11, 2020.(Erin Schaff / The New York Times)

House Democrats, recovering from their failed push to remove President Donald Trump from office, are making a sharp pivot to talking about health care and economic issues, turning away from their investigations of the president as they focus on preserving their majority.

Top Democrats said that oversight of the president will continue, and they plan in particular to press Attorney General William Barr over what they said are Trump’s efforts to compromise the independence of the Justice Department. But for now, at least, they have shelved the idea of subpoenaing Trump’s former national security adviser, who was a central figure in the president’s impeachment trial.

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In a series of private meetings over the past week and in written instructions she distributed to lawmakers Thursday before a recess this week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear that the emphasis must shift.

“Health care, health care, health care,” the speaker said, describing the party’s message during a recent closed-door meeting, according to a person in the room who insisted on anonymity to reveal private conversations. She said they had to be laser-focused on getting reelected: “When you make a decision to win, then you have to make every decision in favor of winning.”

The move is particularly striking given how aggressively Trump, emboldened by his acquittal by the Senate, has moved to take revenge on his perceived enemies and push the limits of his power. But just as they did before the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats appear to have decided that focusing on Trump’s near-daily stream of norm-shattering words and deeds only elevates him, while alienating the swing voters they need to maintain their hold on the House and have a chance at winning the Senate.

Given that the House has already taken the most powerful step a Congress can take to hold a chief executive accountable — impeachment — Democrats reason that there is little more they can do. Some said Trump brings enough attention to his conduct all on his own.

“His erratic, corrupt, unconstitutional behavior speaks for itself at this point,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said in an interview Friday.

In the nearly two weeks since the Senate acquitted Trump, Pelosi has been urging her rank and file to emphasize the same three-pronged “For the People” agenda — creating jobs, cleaning up corruption in Washington and, above all, bringing down the high cost of health care — that won Democrats the majority in 2018. Democrats said the $4.8 trillion budget Trump released last week makes it easier to contrast his priorities with their own.

The budget would cut funding for Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, food stamps and federal student loans. In the “recess packet” Pelosi distributed to lawmakers before they went home, she offered a list of suggested events in their districts — like visits to a senior center, a food bank and an after-school program — that could serve to highlight the impact of the proposed cuts.

“What the president has put forth is a destructive and irrational budget that intentionally goes after working families and vulnerable Americans,” the document said.

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Pelosi also brought in Steven Rattner, an investment banker who advised President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, to brief Democrats privately about ways to target Trump’s economic record. Rattner showed a PowerPoint presentation, portions of which were shared with The New York Times by a person who attended, with statistics showing how income inequality has worsened under Trump and how the economic gains during his tenure — largely in the stock market — have failed to benefit working people and the middle class.

Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, a freshman Democrat who represents a swing district in Pennsylvania, said that was what she would talk about when she was at home.

“We keep seeing more and more data about the recovery that the administration is touting, the great economy,” she said. “But what hits people who have a lot of stock holdings is not hitting the families in my district. Over half of them are underwater at the end of every month now, once they pay for health care and child care and housing.”

The move to put impeachment in the rearview mirror comes after a dismal two weeks for Democrats. First, the Iowa caucuses turned into an electoral debacle, with no clear winner. Then a triumphant Trump delivered his State of the Union address and was acquitted the next day. Finally, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, won the Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire, jangling the nerves of moderate lawmakers.

After the Senate wrapped up Trump’s impeachment trial without calling any witnesses, congressional Democrats were particularly curious about what testimony John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, might have offered. Bolton asserts in a tell-all book that is set to go on sale next month that the president withheld $391 million in security aid from Ukraine to pressure the country to investigate his political rivals, corroborating a charge that was at the center of the president’s impeachment.

Members of the House Intelligence Committee have begun discussing whether to subpoena Bolton; they might consider doing so, for instance, if the White House succeeds in blocking publication of his book, according to a committee official who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

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But Jeffries said there had been “no discussion” of trying to compel Bolton to testify, either in the Judiciary Committee, on which he serves, or at the leadership level.

“It has not been an issue post-impeachment,” Jeffries said, adding, “I’ve been very clear — and I think the speaker has, and other leaders — that our focus should continue to be on the ‘For the People’ agenda, which we articulated to the American people in advance of November 2018.”

That may be easier said than done. Trump has complicated Democrats’ push to change the subject by mounting a brash and highly public post-impeachment campaign of retribution, firing witnesses who testified against him and objecting to the Justice Department’s prosecution of his friend Roger Stone. After senior officials there overruled career prosecutors to recommend Stone receive a lighter sentence, four prosecutors who worked on the case resigned. Trump then cheered the attorney general on Twitter.

“The impact of the prosecutors resigning en masse was huge,” Scanlon, who is also vice chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview Thursday before lawmakers left Washington. “That doesn’t happen with career prosecutors, and it signaled really serious misconduct. So we will have to look at that.”

Democrats have summoned Barr to testify before the Judiciary Committee on March 31. In a harshly worded letter sent to Barr on Wednesday, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., the panel’s chairman, signaled that Democrats planned to question Barr about overruling prosecutors on Stone’s recommended sentence and Barr’s willingness to accept information about Ukraine from Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, among other matters.

Nadler told Barr in the letter that the panel had “grave questions about your leadership” at the Justice Department.

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Since then, the matter has only escalated. Barr, in an extraordinary rebuke of the president Thursday, said Trump’s Twitter attacks on the Justice Department “made it impossible” for him to do his job. Trump fired back Friday, asserting via tweets that he had a “legal right” to interfere in Justice Department cases.

And Bolton’s book, which is scheduled to go on sale March 17, could yield additional revelations about the president’s behavior with respect to Ukraine and revive calls for Bolton to testify.

At the same time, cases related to other House investigations of the president, including examinations of his finances and whether he violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution by accepting payments from representatives of foreign governments who frequent his hotels, are working their way through the courts.

The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether Trump can block the release of his financial records; a ruling is expected by June. An appeals court is considering whether Trump can order his advisers, including Donald McGahn, the former White House counsel, from complying with congressional subpoenas.

Still, Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass. and vice chairwoman of the Democratic caucus, said Democrats believed the cure for Trump’s behavior runs through the ballot box.

“A lot of this is going to be up to making sure that we are successful in November,” she said.

Democrats said they have never taken their eyes off their legislative agenda, in particular lowering health care costs. Even as they voted to impeach Trump, Democrats teamed up with him on a new trade deal with Mexico and Canada.

Before they left for recess, Democrats unveiled a $760 billion infrastructure plan that they have said is aimed at jump-starting bipartisan talks with the administration on how to fix the nation’s crumbling roads, rails and bridges. Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said the plan would give Democrats something tangible to talk about in their home districts. But the chances of any election-year deal with Trump on the issue are vanishingly remote.

Garin said his surveys on impeachment showed that while most Americans were ambivalent about removing the president from office, a majority believe he engaged in wrongdoing and committed the acts that formed the basis for the charges against him. Even so, Garin urged Democrats to follow the plan Pelosi had outlined for them.

“House Democrats need to talk about the same issues they’ve been talking about all along, which include the cost of health care and the need to lower the cost of prescription drugs, and about cleaning up government so that it works for the people and not for special interests,” he said.

c.2020 The New York Times Company

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