All of Washington seems to be bracing for the Justice Department’s release of the report on the nearly two-year investigation of the Trump campaign and Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.
Everyone, that is, except many members of Congress, who are in the midst of a two-week spring break. Lawmakers are scattered across the country and, in some cases, the world as Attorney General William P. Barr is set to release on Thursday a redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s nearly 400-page report.
The report is certain to be a major focus of official Washington as congressional lawyers and staffers examine the inner workings of the investigation, particularly the piece of the probe that explored whether President Trump obstructed justice, an issue that was left unresolved by the prosecutors on Mueller’s team.
And lawmakers on the half-dozen committees with some oversight of the Trump administration will be particularly focused on what comes from the report, whether it sheds light on ongoing investigations or opens potentially new lines of inquiry.
By and large, however, most lawmakers are expected to carry on Thursday and for the rest of this recess period as they have been for the past few months, according to advisers in both parties.
Democrats, who believe they won back the House majority by focusing on kitchen-table issues, mostly ignoring Trump scandals, have pushed their freshmen who won GOP seats to keep their focus on that agenda and spend time in their districts talking to voters about lowering health-care costs and boosting wages.
Republicans, according to their advisers, already received all the information they needed when Barr released a brief summary of Mueller’s findings, the principal conclusion being that the investigation did not find a legal case to bring charges of conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.
GOP lawmakers leaped onto a key phrase that Barr quoted from the Mueller report, that investigators “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government” — and that was all they needed to hear. Their refrain ever since has been echoing Trump’s “no collusion” mantra, and Republicans plan to stick to that plan almost no matter what details emerge Thursday.
Instead, if Republicans focus on the investigation at all, it will be to accuse Democrats of overreach in their ongoing probes of the Trump administration.
It is a delicate balancing act, on both sides, perhaps best exemplified by one freshman Democrat in a district north of Detroit that flipped from GOP control last fall.
On Thursday evening, just hours after the Mueller report is released, Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.) will convene her fourth town hall since taking office Jan. 3. On swearing-in day, Stevens called this massive new freshman class “doers,” people who wanted to break the congressional cycle of partisan sniping and to get things accomplished.
“The American people do not want dysfunction,” she told The Post’s Dan Balz that day. “They want the government to work for them, and they expect that of our House of Representatives.”
So Stevens has no intention of focusing on the investigation’s findings, aside from the possible question from an activist on either side in the crowd at a community college 20 miles northwest of downtown Detroit.
Stevens will be surrounded by local and state officials as they plan to discuss K-12 education, along with local leaders of carpenter and craftsman unions. There will probably be a heavy focus on continuing education and professional training programs to help move those with non-college degrees into a more specialized workforce.
In promoting the event, her aides highlighted Stevens’s recent questioning of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, also a Michigander, over her agency’s efforts to boost charter schools at the expense, Stevens said, of traditional K-12 schools.
“Can you justify the proposed increase for the charter school program and what measures or studies that you’ve been using?” the first-term lawmaker asked DeVos, who dismissed a study Stevens cited as a “political agenda” against charter schools.
Stevens countered that House Education Committee hearing “revealed some of your priorities to us,” in a not-so-veiled shot at DeVos’s focus on helping create more charter schools.
That’s the sort of bread-and-butter issue Democratic leaders have been pushing for these politically endangered lawmakers as they prepare to run for their first reelection in 2020. In a recent interview, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that laser-focused messaging is what brought Democrats victory last fall, not Trump scandals, and she expects that to continue.
“Like a jackhammer: Lower health-care costs, bigger paychecks, cleaner government,” Pelosi said.
Democratic advisers said that, so far, the town halls and other meetings over this break have been just like previous recess periods, where constituents have largely ignored the Russia investigation.
They have not entirely avoided national issues. House GOP leadership circulated a memo Wednesday about how at least four freshmen faced questions in the past few days about whether they support socialist policies, a line of attack Republicans have been pushing as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has gained ground in the presidential campaign.
One Democrat faced questions about whether she supported the Green New Deal proposal from a fellow freshman, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), whose support for democratic socialism has become a focal point of conservative media.
“What I’m more interested in is seeing the actual legislation, which has not been written,” Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), another first-termer, told constituents at her town hall Saturday.
Underwood opened the event by talking about the first 100 days of the Democratic majority, highlighting legislation that the House passed to increase background checks on gun purchases and to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.
She highlighted efforts to lower health-care premiums and reduce costs for prescription drugs, avoiding any embrace of the Medicare-for-all proposal Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez embrace.
Local coverage of the event never mentioned Trump, with nothing about Mueller or impeachment or any administration scandal.
And, if Democrats and Republicans are right, that is likely to continue even after Barr releases the Mueller report.