Seven months ago, shortly after Republicans on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence shut down the panel’s Russia investigation, the committee’s top Democrat appeared to lay the groundwork for a reopened probe should Democrats take back the House after the midterm elections.
“We will be submitting to the public a detailed account of what we have learned to date, and the work that has to be done, if not by us, then by others,” Democratic Representative Adam Schiff of California told reporters after the so-called status report was released. When Republicans characterized the Democrats’ effort as a “fishing expedition,” Schiff retorted that the GOP-led probe had been “fundamentally unserious.”
With a projected victory in the House as they enter the homestretch of the campaign season, however, House Intelligence Committee Democrats are sending a more muted message: While they hope to investigate any questions left open by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, they are also managing expectations when it comes to a fully reopened Russia investigation. While Schiff wrote last week that “it would be negligent to our national security” if a Democrat-controlled committee failed to find out whether the Russians “possess financial leverage over the president,” he said at a national-security conference that it’s been difficult to explain “on the Democratic side of the aisle why we do not demand the same things Republicans demanded when they were in the majority.”
Schiff elaborated further in a statement provided to me by his office: “If Democrats take over the majority, we will take our oversight responsibilities seriously, both with respect to the intelligence agencies under our charge but also with respect to areas of inquiry the majority ignored or prevented us from investigating thoroughly during the Committee’s Russia probe. We will need to assess the way forward and determine what still requires a full accounting based on a review of the extensive body of information we have collected despite Republican obstruction efforts, along with what the Senate and the Special Counsel have made public."
Anyone expecting subpoenas to fly upon Democrats regaining control of the committee will be disappointed, Democratic members told me this week. “There will be some decision making regarding a more selective examination” of certain areas of the investigation, Democratic Representative Denny Heck of Washington told me. “But that’s a different thing from opening the whole investigation again.” Heck, like other Democratic members, said that he trusted Special Counsel Robert Mueller to do a thorough investigation. And he emphasized that while Democrats will have subpoena power if they regain the majority—Schiff has in the past expressed a desire to subpoena Jared Kushner and Donald Trump Jr., among others—he is “hoping it will be a collaborative conversation” if and when the committee wants to call someone to testify.
That may be wishful thinking—Republicans and Democrats are reportedly clamoring for spots on the committee for partisan reasons, to either protect or punish President Donald Trump using information gleaned from the law-enforcement and intelligence communities. Publicly, however, mainstream Democrats are promising to stay above the fray and return institutions to normalcy. Democratic leadership figures like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, for example, have made uttering the “I” word—impeachment—taboo within the party. Campaigning on a process that would further upend American politics and test American institutions, they have argued, is a losing strategy; Pelosi told Rolling Stone that it would be “a gift to the Republicans.”
The idea behind downplaying an aggressive investigation into a potential conspiracy between Trump and Russia should Democrats take back the House seems largely the same. The degree to which the House Intelligence Committee’s infighting and dysfunction spilled into public view throughout Trump’s first 18 months in office—through leaks, television appearances, and press conferences—was remarkable. (The investigation so divided the panel that the Republican chairman, Devin Nunes, considered building a physical wall between staffers.) And it is a case study in how Russia’s election interference has only deepened divisions among the political leaders tasked with responding to it.
“We want to be productive and responsible, and show the American people what they should have learned two years ago: how responsible people investigate an attack on their country,” Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell of California, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, told me. “If there are gaps that exist in the investigation, then we should fill them in. We don’t want to focus on the politics of it, but this isn’t going to be a dancing-in-the-end-zone investigation.”
Democratic Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut largely echoed Swalwell. Democrats will have to determine whether there were any holes that Mueller didn’t cover because they were outside his purview, he told me, and take it from there. “If Mueller’s probe didn’t examine areas where there could have been significant areas of Russian meddling, then of course we will do that,” Himes said. But he also called for a return to good-faith collaboration. “Nunes issued subpoena after subpoena without consulting the ranking member,” Himes said. “We will need to be the adult in the room,” he added. “We want to imbue the committee with a culture of cooperation.”
Representative Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah who serves on the committee, remained a skeptic. “We were a bipartisan committee until President Trump was elected,” he said. “At that point it became political, with the Democrats reacting to Trump. Based on what I’ve seen, I’m not very optimistic that they will change as long as he is our president.”
Indeed, some Democrats don’t find bipartisanship an appealing strategy. Fighting dirty and breaking with norms as the Republicans have, they claim, is the only way to create a lasting political realignment. “We must be a party that fights fire with fire,” the attorney Michael Avenatti, who is weighing a potential presidential run in 2020, told an excited crowd in Iowa over the summer. “When they go low, I say hit back harder.” That impulse isn’t limited to political outsiders: Former Attorney General Eric Holder, a leading Democratic voice, explicitly rejected Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high” mantra in a speech last week. “When they go low, we kick ’em,” Holder said. “That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.”
For now, however, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are banking on the idea that voters don’t want a prolonged investigation that could provoke more partisan infighting either on their committee or in Congress more broadly. “I do worry that people are chomping at the bit for the investigations, but we’re a little out of practice on the legislation side of things,” Himes said. “If we screw this up, theres a chance in 2020 that voters say, ‘These guys are as bad as Trump.’’’