Raskin embraces role as constitutional scholar

Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinDem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Congress and contempt: What you need to know MORE, the often-disheveled former constitutional law professor, has carved out one of the most important roles in the House as Democrats contemplate their investigations of President TrumpDonald John TrumpDC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' DC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' Mexico's immigration chief resigns amid US pressure over migrants MORE in the wake of the Mueller report.

The Maryland Democrat serves on two key committees — Judiciary and Oversight and Reform — that are central in the Democrats’ budding probes. He’s also secured a seat this term on the powerful Rules Committee, which shapes every piece of legislation just before it hits the floor.

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Perhaps most importantly, Raskin is a member of Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPelosi hits Trump on health care: His 'cruel hypocrisy knows no bounds' Pelosi hits Trump on health care: His 'cruel hypocrisy knows no bounds' On The Money: DOJ offers legal opinion backing refusal to release Trump tax returns | Centrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage | Trump bashes Powell ahead of crucial Fed meeting | Design leaks for Harriet Tubman bill MORE’s (D-Calif.) leadership team, which frequently leans on him when the discussion turns to complex questions surrounding the Constitution — and the accusations that Trump is flouting it.

It is, by Raskin’s own admission, not the sexiest role on Capitol Hill. But in many ways, his life’s work studying the founding documents has made him a perfect fit for a divisive moment in American history.

“For me, everything comes back to the Constitution. … For most people, that’s unbelievably esoteric and dry. And for me, it’s spellbinding,” Raskin said in a long and wide-ranging interview in his office on Capitol Hill that took place just before the Department of Justice’s release of the conclusions of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE’s report. “I love reading about the precedence of the House of Representatives. I love reading about Jefferson’s manual. And I love studying the rules of parliamentary procedure.”

Raskin’s role as constitutional consultant has been particularly prominent with Trump in the White House and Democrats probing a long list of controversies swirling around his tenure, such as whether the president has profited illegally from the office.

“I’m definitely not the most telegenic member. I definitely don’t raise the most money of the members,” Raskin said. “But I might be the one who’s most drenched in constitutional law and the rules of parliamentary procedure.”

If Raskin is not telegenic, the networks don’t seem to care: The 56-year-old lawmaker has been popping up frequently on cable news to dish about the Democrats’ investigative plans.

But some of his most important work is taking place out of the view of the cameras. This month, while freshman Rep. Ilhan OmarIlhan OmarHillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data Hillicon Valley: Hacker group targeted electric grid | House Democrats press CBP over facial recognition program | Senators offer bill to protect health data | Groups file FCC complaint over carriers' use of location data House Democrats question DHS over using facial recognition tech on US citizens MORE (D-Minn.) drew the media’s glare for anti-Semitic remarks, Raskin, who is Jewish, was frantically working behind the scenes on a solution.

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His bridge-builder role was designated by Pelosi, who was scrambling to craft an appropriate legislative response that satisfied all sides amid the Omar uproar. She called Raskin at midnight the night before the expected vote, with concern that the caucus consensus on an initial draft “was shaky and fragmenting,” he recalled a week later.

Teaming up with former Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondLawmakers demand answers on Border Patrol data breach Lawmakers demand answers on Border Patrol data breach Democrats keep censure for Trump on the table MORE (D-La.), Raskin brokered a deal on a broad anti-hate resolution, defusing a powder keg that was threatening to tear apart the newly empowered Democratic caucus. It was a task he approached, he says, through a historical lens.

“We are the heirs to all of the civilizing movements of the last half-century — the civil rights movement, the human rights movement, the women’s movement, the LGBT movement, the labor movement,” Raskin said. “And we can’t let everything be squandered in fits of point-scoring and negative identity politics.”

A rapid rise

Born in Washington, D.C., Raskin was raised in a politically active household. His father, the progressive activist Marcus Raskin, served as a young aide to President Kennedy and later played a key role in the anti-Vietnam War movement and the leak of the Pentagon Papers. His mother, Barbara Raskin, was a journalist and author.

Many of his colleagues have served in Congress much longer than Raskin, but they have not risen as quickly. The sophomore lawmaker’s résumé has helped. A former editor of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, Raskin taught constitutional law at American University and served a decade in the Maryland state Senate.

His colleagues call him one of the smartest guys in the building. (In his office, he proudly displays a handmade chess set on which he once played Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov: “I’m a gentleman, I don’t talk about who won,” Raskin said with a smile.)

His ties to Maryland also have served him well. Pelosi has deep roots in the Free State; her father and brother both served as mayor of Baltimore. House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerApprove USMCA before it's too late Lawmakers push to permanently ban automatic pay raises for members of Congress Lawmakers push to permanently ban automatic pay raises for members of Congress MORE, the No. 2 Democratic leader, hails from Maryland, as does Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsHouse Democrats question DHS over using facial recognition tech on US citizens House Democrats question DHS over using facial recognition tech on US citizens Democrats lash out at Trump's bombshell remarks MORE, the chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee on which Raskin serves.

Indeed, the Democrats’ internal rules limit members to seats on just two top-tier committees — and Raskin said he was ready to leave Oversight and Reform this year after Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) approached him about joining his panel. Then Cummings intervened.

Raskin ended up serving on all three committees: Judiciary, Oversight and Rules.

“Unbeknownst to me, Chairman Cummings spoke to Speaker Pelosi and got approval for me to stay on Oversight and I got a chance to be chair of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties,” Raskin recalled. “We are very close friends from Maryland. [And now] I spend very little time in my office and spend a lot of time just zooming back and forth between committee hearing rooms.”

Torn about Trump impeachment

Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s findings has invigorated Trump and his Republican allies, and is likely to deflate the push for impeachment, at least in the near term. Raskin is joining party leaders in calling for release of the full report, but his scrutiny of the president’s behavior is largely independent of the Russia issue.

Raskin is unsparing in his criticisms of Trump, arguing the president “has converted the government of the United States into a money-making operation” in clear violation of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which bars sitting presidents from profiting from the office. As a legal scholar, he appears frustrated that Democrats haven’t pushed back more aggressively.

“The Founders gave us the means to defend ourselves and we haven’t done anything with it yet,” he said. “This is a basic constitutional violation that’s taking place.”

Yet as a member of leadership, Raskin has also urged caution on the impeachment question.

Pelosi and other top Democrats have long argued the need to build bipartisan support before launching any effort to oust Trump. And they’re wary that pushing impeachment hearings without that backing would only energize the Republican base to the benefit of the president in next year’s elections.

Raskin has adopted the leadership’s “higher standard” approach that promotes further investigations, though he’s also going a step further by urging passage of disapproval declarations to address the “emoluments the president has been pocketing.”

“Everybody deserves due process, including Donald Trump,” he said. “[But] he should have come to us and asked for our consent.”

A legal resource

Raskin is frequently consulted during weekly leadership meetings in Pelosi’s office, offering legal expertise on an array of matters, from impeachment and oversight to Trump’s recent declaration of a national emergency at the southern border.

“That’s really the only unique vantage point I bring to these conversations,” Raskin said.

Leaders say they’re thrilled to have him as a legal resource. Hoyer distinguished Raskin as an “outstanding” lawmaker, whose constitutional command benefits the entire caucus. And Pelosi hailed his “unparalleled legal and Constitutional expertise.”

“Our Caucus and Congress have been strengthened by his deep knowledge, strong values and great wisdom, as we work to restore a government that works for the public interest, and not the special interest,” she said in an email.

The praise extends across the caucus, where Raskin’s colleagues have been similarly glowing of both his legal proficiency and outspoken advocacy.

“He knew about the Emoluments Clause before any of us had heard of it,” said Rep. Ted LieuTed W. LieuOvernight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale Overnight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale Lieu trolls Trump with 'warning' to foreign powers on office door MORE (D-Calif.), who attends leadership meetings with Raskin and sits next to him during Judiciary hearings. “He certainly speaks up in leadership meetings. He’ll give advice.”

Raskin’s meteoric rise is something of a surprise for another reason: He never envisioned himself on Capitol Hill to begin with. That’s because the lawmaker Raskin replaced, former Rep. Chris Van HollenChristopher (Chris) Van HollenDemocrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties Democrats ask Fed to probe Trump's Deutsche Bank ties Lawmakers raise security concerns about China building NYC subway cars MORE (D-Md.), was long considered to be on a leadership path that would keep him in the House indefinitely. The landscape changed dramatically in 2016, when Van Hollen ran successfully to replace retiring Sen. Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiLobbying World Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (D-Md.). Raskin characterized the development as “providential.” 

Van Hollen “called me up and he said, ‘Sen. Mikulski’s stepping down, I’m going to run for the Senate, will you support me?’ And I said, ‘Not only will I support you, I’ll run for your seat,’ ” Raskin recalled. “I knew immediately it was something I wanted to do.”

A liberal stalwart, Raskin has built a reputation for tussling with administration witnesses appearing before his committees, including a much-watched sparring match with former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker last month. But he’s also built some surprising alliances across the aisle, teaming up with Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanRep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump Rep. Amash stokes talk of campaign against Trump House panel advances bill to create cybersecurity standards for government IT devices MORE (R-Ohio), a founder of the conservative House Freedom Caucus and staunch Trump ally, on legislation to shield journalists from government records seizures.

Raskin’s early successes in the House have led to plenty of speculation about what the future might bring. He’s already on a leadership track in the lower chamber, but he’s also not ruling out a shot at the Senate or the governor’s mansion — should the opportunity someday arise.

“I’m not being remotely coy, I just don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see where destiny takes me.”