Dems walk Trump trade tightrope
Democrats renew attacks on Trump attorney general
Democrats ripped into Attorney General William Barr on Friday, signaling he'll be a focal point of their attacks on the Trump administration in the post-Mueller report world.
The Democrats say Barr bungled the handling of special counsel Robert Mueller's report and that he has repeatedly sought to protect President Trump, contrasting his comments about what the report said with the actual text that was released on Thursday.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) issued a subpoena on Friday to win the release of the full report, while other Democrats have called for Barr's resignation.
The report is also fueling new talk of impeachment.
"We can't blame Republicans for the lack of an impeachment effort. We control the House," Rep. Al Green (D-Texas), a longtime advocate for impeaching Trump, said Thursday. "It is up to us to act."
The attacks on Barr do, to a certain extent, shift the target from Trump, which could help party leaders who would rather avoid that issue.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who has repeatedly set a high bar for impeachment, helped lead the Barr charge with her own terse statement about the Mueller report, issued jointly with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
"Special Counsel Mueller's report paints a disturbing picture of a president who has been weaving a web of deceit, lies and improper behavior and acting as if the law doesn't apply to him," Pelosi and Schumer wrote in a joint statement.
"But if you hadn't read the report and listened only to Mr. Barr, you wouldn't have known any of that because Mr. Barr has been so misleading," they continued, alleging that he "deliberately distorted significant portions" of the report.
Their letter did not mention impeachment or investigations by Democrats.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) on Thursday downplayed impeachment, saying Democrats were focused on the election.
And while Trump is likely to cast Democrats as focused on impeachment instead of the country, Democrats are planning to use Mueller's report as evidence against reelecting Trump in 2020.
Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) told CNN on Friday that the report is a "road map" to the next campaign cycle because it lays bare Trump's behavior for all voters to see.
And the party is set to portray Barr as part of the problem with Trump's Washington: He and his administration are intent on protecting each other rather than doing what is best for the American people.
Democratic strategist Basil Smikle, who served as the executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, said the strategy is good politics for his party "as long as they can strengthen that narrative, not just from the outcome of the Mueller report but also the subpoenas and calling people before Congress to have this broader discussion about all the inconsistencies with what White House officials say."
"That has the effect of running out this longer, broader, more impactful depiction of a president who is more clownish than competent, which gives 2020 candidates on the Democratic side an opportunity to articulate why they can be better at governing and promoting specific policies to help Americans," he added.
Other strategists emphasize that the ultimate target is Trump, even if some of today's attacks are on Barr.
"Barr laid out a dishonest spin campaign against the findings of the Mueller report to argue Trump's innocence. So of course Democrats should go after Barr. But they also shouldn't lose sight of the bigger targets," said Democratic strategist Christy Setzer.
"Bill Barr is not the ultimate problem. The ultimate problem is the man sitting at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.," said Zac Petkanas, a former campaign adviser to Hillary Clinton.
Petkanas said Democrats should be worried about Barr seeking to protect the president because he has oversight over offshoots of the Mueller probe, including the Southern District of New York (SDNY). It implicated Trump in an investigation examining the payments former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen made to two women alleging affairs with the president before the election.
"Any effort to hold Barr accountable needs to be done through context of protecting the other investigations that have spun off from the Mueller report and to highlight the fact that the report was much more damaging than Bill Barr initially made it seem," Petkanas added.
Democrats are particularly angry with Barr's decision that the obstruction of justice evidence laid out by Mueller did not reach the threshold to charge Trump.
And they say that while Mueller cleared the president of conspiring with Russia, there still was an unprecedented level of contact between Moscow and the Trump campaign.
"Any Republican who thinks that this debate is over with the release of this report needs to get their head examined. There is an awful lot of bread crumbs that the Hill can use to continue to investigate, and I believe they will, as they should," Democratic strategist Jim Manley said.
Democrats will be able to press Barr on these matters next month when he testifies before the Judiciary Committee on May 2 one day after the deadline for Nadler's subpoena.
"It is obviously no coincidence that the May 1 deadline comes a day before Bill Barr is testifying. He now faces the choice of complying with this request or being pummeled at an oversight hearing the next day," said Petkanas.
The Justice Department and other Republicans, however, have slammed the subpoena as being premature.
The top Republican on the Judiciary Committee blasted Nadler for issuing the order shortly after receiving the 400-plus-page report.
"Yesterday, Chairman Nadler held a press conference to admit he had only skimmed the report. Now - less than 24 hours after its release with minimal redactions - he's rushing to subpoena material that he hasn't even asked the department to provide yet and that, by law, can't be shared outside the Justice Department," Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) said in a statement.
Republicans have celebrated the findings of the report as a win for the president while praising Barr for his handling of the report.
Even before the report's release, Republicans had predicted that Democrats would seize on it regardless of its content to attack Trump and Barr.
"The White House knows there is nothing they can say or do that will satisfy the Democratic or media beast when it comes to the Mueller report. They already noticed this because the Democrats have moved from a Trump-Russia conspiracy to a Trump-Barr conspiracy," GOP strategist Ford O'Connell told The Hill.