Jamie Raskin

Rep. Jamie Raskin, member of the House Judiciary Committee. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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Dems see Trump’s alleged self-dealing as new path to impeachment

Lawmakers argue Trump's alleged corruption is easier for the public to understand than 'arcane terms' like obstruction of justice.

House Democrats have spent months trying to make obstruction of justice charges stick against President Donald Trump as they build a case for impeachment.

But in recent weeks, senior Democrats have shifted their focus toward reports that Trump is using his presidency to enrich himself in violation of the Constitution. And they’ve hammered the president more than ever on a range of allegations, from campaign-finance crimes to abuses of power.

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Pro-impeachment Democrats are hoping that a renewed focus on corruption and self-dealing could give their effort to oust Trump the momentum that former special counsel Robert Mueller never had.

“The Mueller report has clearly been muddled and I’m not sure that the public really has much of a concept of what that showed,” said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), who supports impeachment. “And corruption is pretty easy to understand.”

While they’re not quite admitting defeat on the Mueller report, Yarmuth and other pro-impeachment lawmakers cited efforts by the White House and the Justice Department to slow-walk the House Judiciary Committee’s subpoenas for documents and testimony related to the Mueller probe, many of which are lagging in federal court and could take months to reach a conclusion.

The White House’s posture has made it more difficult for Democrats to hold a public airing of the allegations contained within the 448-page Mueller report, most notably the president’s efforts to shut down the investigation altogether.

Corruption, Democrats note, would be a clearer case to make to the American public — a key barometer for House Democrats’ impeachment calendar.

“People generally understand the kind of corruption he's being accused of now better than they do arcane terms like obstruction of justice,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) said.

“People understand what it means for the president to be spending millions of dollars in federal government tax dollars at his own business properties,” added Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Congress is uniquely suited to address potential violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments clauses, which bar a president from profiting off spending by the U.S. or foreign governments. Trump has faced criticism on this issue from Democrats since before he was sworn in as president, in part because he did not completely divest from his business empire.

“I have said from the very beginning that the original sin of the Trump administration is that he’s converted the government into an instrument of self-enrichment,” Raskin added. “I’ve always felt this is the heart of it. When Donald Trump said he was going to blow up the Mueller investigation if they looked at his finances, that told us precisely where we needed to go. And I think we’ve got to follow the money. The Constitution will save us.”

House Democrats will take their most significant step toward impeachment proceedings later this week when the Judiciary Committee votes on a resolution that underscores the parameters of its impeachment investigation into the president — a probe that is certain to include the allegations that Trump has repeatedly violated the Constitution’s Emoluments clauses.

“I think there’s no question that people tend to react more strongly to direct evidence of corruption and financial gain and using the presidency for your own financial benefit,” added Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, a member of the House Judiciary Committee and Democratic leadership.

“What they will learn about the obstruction of justice — coupled with the president’s corruption — taken together are going to be sufficient for the American people to be persuaded that we should move forward with impeachment,” Cicilline added.

Publicly, Judiciary Committee Democrats argue that they haven’t shifted strategies, pointing to a spate of upcoming high-profile hearings and court battles related to the Mueller probe as they seek to build a public case that Trump obstructed justice.

But privately, Democrats in favor of ousting Trump have complained about how the process has been handled so far — from months of jousting with the White House over technocratic process fights to contradictory talking points from top Democrats about meaning of “impeachment inquiry” and whether the House had actually launched one.

The new spate of self-dealing allegations came after Trump openly suggested that his Doral resort in Miami, Fla., should host the annual G-7 summit next year. Such a decision could force foreign governments, as well as the U.S. government, to funnel money to Trump’s business empire to participate in international diplomacy, an apparent violation of the Emoluments clauses.

More recently, Vice President Mike Pence lodged at Trump’s resort in Doonbeg, Ireland, and commuted back and forth from Dublin. After Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, initially said Trump “suggested” that the vice president stay at the Trump-owned hotel, the president said on Monday that he had “nothing to do” with the decision.

And last week, POLITICO revealed that the House Oversight and Reform Committee has been investigating an instance in which Air National Guard members stayed at Trump’s luxury waterside resort in Turnberry, Scotland, during a routine stopover from the U.S. to Kuwait. On Monday, Trump said the Turnberry stop, too, has “nothing to do with me.”

The Judiciary Committee has launched probes into both Trump’s G7 suggestion as well as Pence’s stay at Trump’s property in Doonbeg. Committee members received a list of talking points on Monday that specifically highlighted corruption-related allegations against the president.

In the meantime, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has remained steadfastly opposed to impeachment. She has argued repeatedly, including in a caucus call late last month, that the public support just isn’t there as nearly 60 percent of Americans still don’t support the idea, according to recent polls.

“We are legislating, we’re investigating, and we are litigating. We are taking our information to court,” Pelosi told reporters on Monday. “[W]e are on the path of investigation, and that includes the possibility of legislation or impeachment.”

Yet Pelosi last week sharply condemned Trump for “violating the Constitution” for allegedly steering business to his resorts, adding another notch to her lexicon of attacks that inch closer to accusing Trump of impeachable conduct.

Democrats know that they are running up against a rapidly shrinking calendar. Many acknowledge that the start of the 2020 election season is likely an unofficial deadline for the House to realistically consider impeachment.

To Republicans, the rhetorical reset is a sign that Democrats are grasping for a strategy to justify potential impeachment when their earlier attempts failed to gain momentum.

“Judiciary Democrats are trying to pull a fast one on Americans,” said Georgia Rep. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel. “They know they don’t have the votes for the whole House to impeach, so they’re trying to adopt committee rules to govern an ‘impeachment investigation’ the House hasn’t even authorized.”

Sarah Ferris and Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.

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