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Republicans and Democrats angle to take the offensive after Mueller report

Republicans and Democrats angle to take the offensive after Mueller report
President Trump’s response to the special counsel's report was another example of his ability to spin a narrative that paints him as both winner and victim. (Eric Baradat / AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump and congressional Republicans went on offense Monday by calling for new investigations into what they claim was political bias behind special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s inquiry, even as they heralded its conclusion exonerating Trump of colluding with Russia during the 2016 campaign.

Democrats, meanwhile, found themselves walking a political tightrope between pressing for further scrutiny into whether the president obstructed justice — a question left explicitly unanswered by Mueller — without appearing overzealous or overly focused on impeachment.

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Trump’s response to the Mueller report was another example of the president’s ability to ignore the contradictions of his own actions and statements, and spin a narrative that paints him as both winner and victim.

After saying for months that Mueller was biased because of personal conflicts and describing the entire inquiry as a Democratic-inspired hoax and witch hunt, Trump has embraced its conclusions as legitimate and said Monday that Mueller acted “honorably” and that the investigation “was 100% the way it should’ve been.”

At the same time, however, he — and other Republicans — called for investigations into the investigators themselves. Though there are risks in undermining the credibility of a Republican-led process that cleared him of collusion, Trump nevertheless described unnamed people involved in the inquiry as “evil” and said they should now be “looked at.”

“What they did — it was a false narrative, it was a terrible thing,” Trump said. “We can never let this happen to another president again.”

For Trump, the last few days have unfolded as among the most satisfying of his presidency. First, he was cleared by Mueller of collusion with Russia; on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu compared Trump’s support for Israel to Cyrus the Great; and then attorney Michael Avenatti, one of Trump’s loudest adversaries, was arrested on charges of extortion and bank fraud.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who golfed with Trump in Florida over the weekend, said Monday that the president is “probably stronger today than at any time [in his] presidency. The cloud has been removed.”

Like Trump, Graham called for new investigations, as seemingly unlikely as they may be. He wants another special counsel to review what he called “the other side of the story,” including how the Justice Department approved surveillance of Trump campaign official Carter Page.

Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, listed several former intelligence and law enforcement officials who he claimed may have exaggerated evidence of conspiracy to initiate wiretaps in the Justice Department inquiry.

Republicans also targeted Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who had suggested previously that there was evidence of collusion. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) called for Schiff to step down from the post, and White House senior advisor Kellyanne Conway said on Fox News that he needs to resign for “peddling a lie.”

Democrats dismissed the attacks as an attempt to distract the public from the unresolved questions from Mueller’s report, which has not been released to Congress and only described by Atty. Gen. William Barr in a short memo.

“President Trump’s attacks on me, and those of his allies in Congress are nothing new,” Schiff said in a statement, adding that he’ll continue to push for release of the Mueller report to the public and the underlying material to Congress.

The Democratic chairs of six House committees on Monday demanded that Barr turn over Mueller’s full report by April 2 and begin turning over the “underlying evidence and materials” the same day.

Despite Mueller’s finding of no collusion, Democrats insisted that the investigations into the presidency have every right to continue. They demanded Mueller testify before Congress to ensure that the report was completed without political interference.

They also want to know how Barr, who was appointed by Trump, determined that he wouldn’t file obstruction charges against his boss. And they plan to continue a series of other investigations by the House Judiciary Committee that have nothing to do with the Russia investigation.

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“We’re looking at the emoluments clause, tax returns being failed to be produced, campaign finance irregularities — payoffs to hush money apparently,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), a freshman on the House Judiciary Committee. “There’s a broader scope than the Mueller investigation.”

The fact that there wasn’t a bombshell in Mueller’s report — at least according to what has so far become public — all but eliminates the possibility that Trump will be impeached, according to several Democrats.

“The odds of impeaching and removing Donald Trump have gone down substantially this week,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Northridge), who filed articles of impeachment in 2017.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) had already largely taken the idea of impeachment off the table. Weeks before the Mueller report was filed, she said she opposed impeachment unless overwhelming evidence prompted a bipartisan effort — a comment that took the wind out of some progressive Democrats’ sails at the time but proved prescient when Mueller’s report included no new indictments.

Now Democrats hope to juggle two priorities: Keep a cloud of investigations around Trump’s possible obstruction of justice and other issues, while highlighting the legislative agenda they want to pursue after 2020, when Democrats hope to have more control in Washington.

This week, the House is voting on a bill to ensure fairness in paychecks for men and women, and Democrats will roll out a healthcare bill to underscore the 2010 healthcare law’s popular protections for people with preexisting conditions.

“The key thing we have to demonstrate is we have 435 members of Congress and the vast majority of us, including myself, are spending the vast majority of our time on how to make the economy better, how to make transportation better,” Sherman said. “We are not obsessed with removing this president, although we don’t like him. We are obsessed with trying to improve the government and improving the lives of Americans.”

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Some Democrats in moderate districts that Trump won are skeptical of pushing too far.

Rep. Anthony Brindisi, a New York Democrat who represents a district that Trump won by nearly 16 percentage points, said he wants the full report to be made public because Americans deserve transparency. But he emphasized caution.

“They also deserve leaders who are focused on solving problems for everyday people — lowering healthcare costs, serving our veterans, and creating jobs and opportunity,” he said. “Our challenges are too great to be distracted by endless partisanship and investigations.”

Times staff writers Eli Stokols and Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.

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