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US House Democrats eye Mueller filings for Trump probe

By Reuters - Feb 14,2019 - Last updated at Feb 14,2019

Special Counsel Robert Mueller (centre) departs after briefing members of the US Senate on his investigation into potential collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, on June 21, 2017 (Reuters photo)

WASHINGTON — Newly empowered Democrats in the US House of Representatives plan to use court documents from Robert Mueller's Russia probe to conduct hearings on President Donald Trump without waiting for the special counsel's final report, according to lawmakers and aides. 

Concerned that Mueller's report could be months away and ultimately limited in scope, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have started examining documents filed by Mueller's team in its probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion by Trump's campaign team.

They plan to use the court filings to build a picture of wrongdoing by Trump advisers that can provide the basis for hearings, Democratic lawmakers and aides told Reuters.

"There's enough information already for us to conduct robust oversight hearings. We've seen enough from the people who've been implicated, indicted, jailed to be awfully busy for the foreseeable future," said Representative Ted Deutch, a Democrat on the committee.

It is not known when Mueller will complete his probe, or whether the public or Congress will see his original report. 

However, Democrats believe the details he has already divulged in criminal court filings against former Trump associates could show patterns indicating obstruction of justice and abuse of power, possibly providing grounds for impeachment proceedings. 

"We don't have anything like a complete picture at this point. But a picture is starting to emerge," said Representative Jamie Raskin, a subcommittee vice chairman. 

White House officials did not respond to requests for comment. Mueller's office declined to comment.

The Judiciary Committee's top Republican, Doug Collins, dismissed the plan as an effort by its chairman, Jerrold Nadler, to placate Democratic voters. Republicans are in the minority in the House after Democratic wins in elections last November. 

The committee has jurisdiction over any impeachment effort, and plans in coming weeks to roll out its oversight agenda on a range of issues, which also include conflicts of interest, emoluments and public corruption, an aide said. 

The panel on Tuesday announced the hiring of two top litigators, both Trump critics, as special oversight counsels.

Democrats on the committee say many of Mueller's findings are already on file in federal court in the form of criminal charges, plea agreements and sentencing memoranda, and that they provide a partial roadmap of alleged misdeeds.

"We don't need to wait until the Mueller report comes out to start exploring what constitutes obstruction of justice, what constitutes abuse of power, where a violation of the president's oath would be implicated," Deutch said. 

The committee would avoid topics and witness testimony that could conflict with Mueller's ongoing work, the aide said. 

 

Russia ties

 

Thirty-four people have pleaded guilty or been indicted in the Mueller inquiry so far.

Court documents depict a Trump campaign that placed a high priority on improving US-Russia relations, while also revealing that Trump, then a candidate, sought approval from President Vladimir Putin's government for a Trump tower project in Moscow.

Former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos sought meetings between the campaign and Russian government officials after being told Moscow had "dirt" on Trump's presidential rival, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the court filings show. 

After Trump won the election, but before he took office, former national security adviser Michael Flynn appealed to Russia to oppose a UN resolution on Israeli settlements and to not retaliate over US sanctions on Russia for election meddling, according to a court document.

Lawmakers also expect to focus on allegations that several of Trump's former advisers lied to Congress and federal investigators. 

"Why are all these people lying under oath? Why are all of these people trying to obstruct justice? What is the story that is being concealed here?" Raskin said.

Mueller may be dissuaded from specifically linking Trump to any of his investigations in his final report because of a standing Justice Department opinion that presidents cannot be indicted while in office, the aide said. 

Department regulations governing the special counsel's office also stipulate that reports should be confidential and amount to little more than "brief notifications". 

Nadler said he is "not confident at all" that the Mueller report will help lawmakers determine whether there are grounds for impeaching Trump. 

"It could be a comprehensive report telling us a lot. Or it could be a statement that on such-and-such a date we indicted so-and-so, and on such-and-such a date we decided not to indict so-and-so," Nadler said.

If Mueller's final report is not provided to Congress in full when it is issued, Nadler could subpoena the document and call Mueller to testify. 

He could also introduce legislation to give Congress access to the full report or make a formal House request for access to Mueller's grand jury evidence, an action similar to steps taken by his Watergate-era predecessor in the 1970s. 

Not all committee Democrats think such action is necessary.

"They're not going to bury it. There's no shovel big enough for them to bury it," said Representative Eric Swalwell, pointing to polls showing that an overwhelming majority of Americans want Mueller to produce a full public report on his probe.

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