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New tensions with administration deepen a dilemma for House Democrats; polls show why

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(LAT)

Atty. Gen. William Barr’s decision this week to stonewall a House hearing into how he handled the special counsel’s report ratcheted tensions higher between the administration and House Democrats.

So far, the Democrats have responded gingerly. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said the House could hold Barr in contempt, but wouldn’t move yet.

Some activists were dismayed at that response. But Democrats face several constraints — public opinion to begin with.

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CRIMES, YES; IMPEACHMENT, NO

A survey released Thursday by the nonpartisan Quinnipiac University poll illustrated the dilemma Democratic congressional leaders face.

A substantial majority of American voters, 57%-28%, said yes when the poll asked if they believed that President Trump had “committed any crimes before he was president.” The voters split evenly when asked if Trump had committed crimes while in office.

By an overwhelming majority, 72%-18%, voters thought Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, had conducted his investigation fairly. And voters rejected Trump’s claim that the report had “cleared [him] of any wrongdoing,” 51%-38%.

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By 54%-42%, voters said they thought Trump had “attempted to derail or obstruct the investigation,” and by 56%-41% said they thought Trump believes he is “above the law.”

And yet, a large majority of voters, 66%-29%, said they opposed the idea of Congress beginning impeachment proceedings against Trump. Democrats favored moving toward impeachment, although not overwhelmingly — 56%-38% — while big majorities of both Republicans and independents opposed it.

Even the more incremental step of “investigat[ing] to determine whether or not to bring impeachment charges” generated a close split, with 51% saying no, 47% yes.

So a majority of voters think Trump committed crimes and that Mueller’s investigation was fair and did not exonerate him, but say that Congress shouldn’t do more on the topic. Why?

By 53%-43%, the voters surveyed said that the “investigation into President Trump is distracting Congress from other national issues.” Republicans felt that way overwhelmingly — no surprise — but so did a majority, 55%, of independents and about one in five Democrats.

Other polls have shown similar results. Those findings about public opinion illuminate the strategies of the two sides.

Trump and his aides have repeatedly moved to escalate the fight with Congress — refusing to allow witnesses to testify, rebuffing subpoenas and declining to cooperate. The administration has embarked on a “war on transparency, a crusade against accountability,” our colleague Doyle McManus wrote.

Barr’s refusal to appear before Nadler’s committee, which Chris Megerian, Jennifer Haberkorn and Sarah Wire chronicled, provided the latest and highest-profile example.

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That stance might seem risky, but Trump and his advisors clearly think a crisis helps them in two ways: Confrontation strengthens the loyalty of Trump’s core supporters, and any perception that Congress has focused on impeachment, not other issues, will hurt Democrats, especially in swing districts.

Democratic leaders ruefully share both of those assessments. In swing districts, some Democratic members have tried to avoid talking about Mueller, as Haberkorn found when she visited one such district in central New York.

Most would prefer to focus on issues that divide Republicans, such as healthcare.

But the Democratic leadership can’t simply drop the issues raised in Mueller’s extensive report. They have both principled and practical reasons.

On the principled side, many Democratic elected officials believe the evidence laid out in Mueller’s report shows Trump abused his power and that he can’t be allowed to get away with it.

On the political side, a majority of Democratic voters favor at least starting impeachment proceedings. Some hold that view passionately. Party leaders can’t simply ignore them.

For now, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her lieutenants have settled on a strategy of keeping the investigative flame lit, but trying to keep the temperature on a low simmer.

Paradoxically, it’s the target of the investigation, Trump, who over the next several weeks most likely will keep trying to turn up the heat.

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ATTORNEY GENERAL AS HEAT SHIELD

In Barr, Trump may have found the perfect person to help carry out a stonewalling strategy.

On Tuesday, on the eve of Barr’s congressional testimony, news broke that Mueller had written a letter to Barr objecting to how he characterized the findings of the Russia investigation. As Del Wilber and Megerian reported, such a written objection is a rare step which showed Mueller had serious problems with what Barr said.

The next day, Senate Democrats questioned Barr intensely. They scored some points, but the attorney general remained largely unruffled.

At 68, Barr is toward the end of his career. He doesn’t have his eyes on higher office. He’s already served a term as attorney general, in the George H.W. Bush administration, during which he backed efforts to stiff-arm parts of the Iran-Contra investigation.

And so long as Barr doesn’t mind the heat, Congress has limited powers to force the administration to cooperate, as Wire wrote.

Congress can vote to hold Barr in contempt, but enforcing a subpoena generally requires going to court, a step that could easily take up most, if not all, of the rest of Trump’s term. From the administration’s standpoint, running out the clock may be a very viable option.

BIDEN THE FRONTRUNNER

Having jumped into the race by video last week, Joe Biden opened his 2020 campaign on home turf — a Pennsylvania union hall. As Janet Hook wrote, the venue reflected Biden’s strategy aimed at winning back blue-collar voters in the nation’s big industrial states.

In Iowa, where Biden went next, Evan Halper found voters flocking to him, but out of practicality, not passion. Repeatedly, voters at Biden events said their hearts favored other candidates, but their heads said Biden could more easily be elected.

The problem with “I can win” as a campaign slogan, however, is that the balloon can burst quickly if a candidate stumbles. The frontrunner always has the curse of needing to win everywhere; Biden now has a double dose.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden’s chief rival at this point, has built something he clearly did not have in his 2016 effort — a disciplined, effective campaign machine, Halper wrote.

The Democratic field continues to grow. This week, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado joined the field, which now exceeds 20. At least 17 candidates already have qualified for the first round of debates in June, and several more could qualify before the event happens.

The size of the field poses a significant problem for candidates trying to gain attention, like former Rep. Beto O’Rourke. This week, O’Rourke proposed a $5-trillion climate plan for net-zero emissions by 2050, Melanie Mason wrote. He also traveled to California for a four-day tour of the state in which he seemed to be trying to rediscover his spark.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also has an ambitious plan to combat climate change, as Matt Pearce wrote. Climate forms the main focus of Inslee’s campaign.

TRUMP’S PITCH

On the Republican side, Trump has his own dilemma, Eli Stokols and Noah Bierman wrote:

Trump’s pitch in 2016 involved a litany of dire problems and “I, alone, can fix it.” Keeping his base of supporters riled up requires reminding them of the problems, but reaching out to swing voters means saying that he’s fixed things.

Trump’s ability to balance grievance and claims of accomplishment will be a major theme in his reelection campaign.

THE SOARING COST OF HEALTH INSURANCE

This week, The Times published the first in a series of stories by Noam Levey about huge changes in job-based health insurance — the kind most Americans have — and how those changes have hurt millions of Americans.

As Levey reported, insurance deductibles have soared in the last decade, leaving many Americans with unaffordable bills.

Both parties have devoted huge energy to fighting over how to cover the uninsured. As they’ve focused on that, the insurance that most people do have — benefits from an employer — has deteriorated.

Illustrating the problem — the story of one Kansas family with three kids, a health plan and $15,000 in medical debt: A working family tries to make ends meet.

THE TRAPDOOR OPENS AGAIN

One theme in the Trump administration involves the downfall of hapless characters who were doing just fine in their lives until Trump decided to put them up for offices for which they lacked the usual qualifications.

Stephen Moore became the latest example this week.

Last month, Trump publicly said he wanted to nominate Moore, a political operative and cable-news economics commentator, to a seat on the Federal Reserve board.

The sudden decision, made without the usual vetting, focused a spotlight on Moore. The glare highlighted child support he hadn’t paid, taxes he owed and racist and sexist comments that doomed his chances in the Senate and quite likely will damage his future employment prospects, at least for a while.

Thursday morning, after several Republican senators made clear that Moore lacked the votes to win, the nominee told several news organizations that he planned to fight it out and had the backing of the White House.

Within less than two hours, Trump tweeted that Moore had withdrawn from consideration.

THE REST OF THE WEEK’S NEWS

Trump issued a presidential memorandum that aims to restrict asylum applicants further, but as Molly O’Toole wrote, the move faces legal and financial challenges.

Trump and Pelosi both claimed progress after a meeting on infrastructure. Trump said he liked the idea of a $2-trillion plan to rebuild roads and bridges, expand broadband access and make other improvements.

But congressional Republicans don’t like the idea of added domestic spending, and certainly not if it involves new taxes. Democrats won’t support the plan unless it involves real money. And previous deals between the Democrats and Trump all fell apart as the president proved unwilling — or unable — to stand up to conservative criticism.

Finally, as David Cloud and Tracy Wilkinson reported, the White House is scrambling on Venezuela after a failed effort by opposition figures to push aside that country’s leader, Nicolas Maduro. The administration wants to see Maduro ousted, but has few good policy options.

LOGISTICS

That wraps up this week. Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration at our Politics page and on Twitter @latimespolitics.

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com.

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David.lauter@latimes.com

@davidlauter


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