Ultimately, voters will decide Trump’s future

Former special counsel Robert Mueller returns to the witness table following a break in his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Robert Mueller’s testimony Wednesday sent the clearest signal yet that impeachment may be slipping out of reach for Democrats and that the ultimate verdict on President Donald Trump will be rendered by voters in the 2020 election.

Democrats had hoped the former special counsel’s appearance would be a turning point. A Marine who served in Vietnam, Mueller is the kind of square-jawed federal prosecutor to whom Americans may have once listened as a trusted source of authority. But in this era of stark political polarization, galvanizing the public is a difficult task even if Mueller wanted to produce a viral moment, which he never seemed inclined to do. Rather than swoop in to give voice to the 448-page report, Mueller said very few words.

What Mueller did say was striking: Trump was not exonerated of potential crimes. His report found Russia interfered in the 2016 election in “sweeping and systematic” fashion. Accepting foreign campaign assistance is wrong, he agreed. But Mueller’s reluctance to engage, and his one-word answers, deprived the country of a where-were-you-when moment that could bring decisive conclusion to the probe and Trump’s role in trying to obstruct the investigation.

“It was not a hoax,” Mueller testified of Russian election interference.

The result, after more than six hours at the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, was that the sides in Washington were retrenching to their familiar outposts, leaving voters to decide what to do next.

Trump derided Mueller’s appearance — “disaster,” he tweeted — and started fundraising off it. The president’s reelection campaign set a $2 million goal over 24 hours, it said, to counter those trying to “TRICK the American People into believing their LIES.”

Allies of the White House quickly joined in. GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called Mueller’s appearance “sad.” Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the Intelligence panel, said the hearing was the “last gasp” of the investigation.

“It’s time for the curtain to close on the Russia hoax,” Nunes said. “The conspiracy theory is dead.”

Much was riding on Mueller’s appearance, coming months after the release of his report in April. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is weighing liberal calls for impeachment against her own instincts for a more measured approach investigating the Trump administration and laying out the findings.

Activists on the party’s left flank have been impatient with what they see as Pelosi’s slow-walking of impeachment — but they’ve also been deferential to her strategy. More than 85 House Democrats have called for the House to begin impeachment proceedings, and more lawmakers are expected to add their names after Mueller’s testimony.

Yet even though Democrats hold the House majority, they’re far from the 218 votes that would be needed to approve articles of impeachment. With Republicans controlling the Senate, many Democrats warn moving forward is a political dead end.

“If we have a case for impeachment, that’s the place we will have to go,” Pelosi said afterward.

Mueller, in his testimony, didn’t push the issue any further. While Mueller’s team declined to prosecute the president, in part because of a Justice Department opinion against indicting a sitting president, the report also suggested other remedies, including in Congress. Asked about impeachment as an option Wednesday, Mueller refused to comment on it.

The former special counsel was always going to be a reluctant witness who wanted his report to speak for itself. Democrats knew what they would encounter even if they were hoping for a Mueller of a different vintage, from his time leading the FBI after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Instead, they saw a less forceful public presence, hard of hearing at times, hesitant to answer many of the questions, but one still skilled enough in the ways of Washington to not read his report in a way that Democrats could exploit.

When Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., asked if Mueller would read a certain section from the report, Mueller turned the tables: “I’m happy to have you read it.”

Republicans had their own expectations and tried to portray Mueller as an actor in an elaborate attempt to undermine Trump’s election. Their revived their long-running theory about the origins of the report during Hillary Clinton’s campaign and posed questions that seemed well designed to be replayed on conservative media, even if they, too, found Mueller’s answers were not entirely fulfilling.

It had all the trappings of a classic Washington political drama, yet brought little closure.

Even if Mueller had been a more eager player, he may not have been able to make a more convincing case. Gone are the Watergate-era hearings, when lawmakers crossed party lines to engage critically over then-President Richard Nixon. The impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton changed that dynamic, and the partisan divide since has only deepened to a point of rupturing whatever’s left of political comity.

Still, Mueller’s appearance was far from a political loss for either party. Ahead of the 2020 election, both are trying to reach the slice of Americans who have not hardened to partisan positions.

A June poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found 31% of Americans said they didn’t know enough to say whether Mueller’s report had completely cleared Trump of coordination with Russia and 30% didn’t know whether it had not completely cleared Trump of obstruction. A CNN poll found that just 3% said they had read the whole report.

Perhaps Mueller’s testimony, with his button-down lawyer’s approach, reached some of them.

As voters consider what they’ll do, Mueller did leave them with one definitive point — a warning about what happened in 2016 and a plea that they pay attention to what may be coming.

“Over the course of my career, I’ve seen a number of challenges to our democracy,” Mueller said. “The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious. … This deserves the attention of every American.”

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AP Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro has covered Congress since 2010.

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Jail for all the president’s men?

Whether fact or folklore, this small space in the basement of the Capitol with steel bars is sometimes referred to as the old “House jail,” but it used today to protect the cherished Lincoln Catafalque, the pedestal for caskets used during state funerals, in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

They’re talking about jailing people at the Capitol. Imposing steep fines. All sorts of extraordinary, if long-shot measures to force the White House to comply with Democratic lawmakers’ request for information about President Donald Trump stemming from the special counsel’s Russia investigation.

This is the remarkable state of affairs between the executive and legislative branches, unseen in recent times, as Democrats try to break through Trump’s blockade of investigations and exert congressional oversight of the administration.

“One of the things that everybody in this country needs to think about is when the president denies the Congress documents and access to key witnesses, basically what they’re doing is saying, Congress you don’t count,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

“We cannot — we simply cannot — have a presidency that is run as if it were a king or a dictator in charge,” said Cummings, D-Md.

Trump’s blanket refusal to engage in oversight — and Democrats’ unrelenting demand that he do so — is testing the system of checks and balances with a deepening standoff in the aftermath of Robert Mueller’s investigation.

Trump derides the oversight of his business dealings and his administration as “presidential harassment” and has the backing of most Republicans in Congress. With Mueller’s work completed, Trump wants closure to what he has long complained was a “witch hunt.”

“No more costly & time-consuming investigations,” Trump tweeted.

Stunned by the administration’s refusal to allow officials to testify or respond to document requests, lawmakers have been left to think aloud about their next steps against the White House.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, has given Attorney General William Barr a Monday deadline to comply with a subpoena demanding a redacted version of Mueller’s report, along with its underlying evidence, or face a contempt charge.

Barr could face another subpoena to appear before Nadler’s committee after skipping a hearing Thursday in a dispute over the rules for questioning him. Nadler, D-N.Y., also has subpoenaed testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn.

Cummings is considering what to do on several fronts, including about testimony from Carl Kline, the White House’s personnel security director. Cummings said Kline declined last week to answer specific questions in a closed-session hearing about the security clearances granted for White House advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the president’s son-in-law and daughter. Also, the House Ways and Means Committee is being refused access to Trump’s tax returns.

Republicans are largely declining to join Democrats in pursuing the investigations any further.

“It is over,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as Barr testified last week before the committee. Graham, R-S.C., has asked Mueller to respond to Barr’s testimony, particularly after the disclosure of a letter the special counsel sent Barr complaining about attorney general’s summary of the 400-plus page Russia report.

The rejection of oversight is the latest and perhaps most high-profile example of the new normal in the Trump era. Gone are the daily White House press briefings, once a fixture in Washington. Administration vacancies go unfilled, leaving fewer officials to respond to congressional requests. Agencies across the government seem more insular than before.

Princeton professor Julian E. Zelizer said what’s unfolding between the White House and Congress “fits in a long history of bad moments when the branches clash over vital information.”

While other presidents, including Barack Obama, have resisted congressional oversight in certain situations, including during Attorney General Eric Holder’s blockade of the “Fast and Furious” gun-running investigation, Zelizer said “Trump is going further by saying no to everything.”

To Zelizer, “certainly there are echoes of Watergate when the administration did everything possible to stonewall Congress as they undertook legitimate investigations and hearings into presidential corruption.”

He said presidents with “too much power” can easily make decisions that undermine government operations in everyday lives. “Should citizens care? Of course, the restraint of presidential power is an essential part of our Constitution and the health of our democracy,” Zelizer said.

Impeachment is being shelved, for now. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her leadership team are taking a step-by-step approach to the White House standoff, declining any rush to impeachment proceedings, as some in her party want, for a more incremental response.

Pelosi did note this past week that obstructing Congress was one of the articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon.

“Impeachment is never off the table, but should we start there?” Pelosi said Friday. “I don’t agree with that.”

Short of that, lawmakers are considering options for Barr and others. There’s a long history of lawmakers holding officials in contempt. They can sue for compliance with the threat of fines. Some lawmakers are suggesting censuring the attorney general or impeaching him. Others have called for Barr to resign.

And then there’s talk of jail time.

Capitol Hill has been buzzing about the unlikely prospect of using a jail that some say exists somewhere in the Capitol and that was used in the past to detain those in contempt of Congress.

But the House and Senate say no such facility exists.

“No evidence suggests that any room in the Capitol was ever designated for use as a jail,” says an entry on the House website’s historical pages.

During the Civil War, some Confederate soldiers and others were held at a brick building on the site of what’s now the Supreme Court, across the street from the Capitol, that was often referred as the “Capitol Prison” or “Old Capitol Jail,” according to the history page.

Otherwise, those found in contempt “were almost certainly held temporarily in the offices of the Sergeant at Arms, locked in committee anterooms, or put under guard at local hotels,” it says.

Senate Historian Betty Koed said in the past, the District of Columbia’s jail facility has also been used for detentions. “There is no Senate jail,” she said.

Lawmakers remain undeterred. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of party leadership, said lawmakers have “a whole range of options.”

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Follow on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lisamascaro
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Update on investigations of Trump

President Donald Trump visits a new section of the border wall with Mexico.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Where the investigations related to President Donald Trump stand and what may lie ahead for him:

WHAT DO I NEED TO KNOW?

The White House continues to push back against a Democratic request for the IRS to provide six years of Trump’s personal tax returns and the returns for some of his businesses. The returns were officially requested Wednesday by Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, who heads the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee.

An attorney representing Trump argued Friday that a request for the president’s tax returns “would set a dangerous precedent” if granted and that the IRS cannot legally divulge the information.

William Consovoy, whose firm was retained by Trump to represent him on the matter, said in a letter to the Treasury Department’s general counsel that requests for tax returns “must have a legitimate legislative purpose.” He said Neal’s request for Trump’s tax information is intended to damage the president politically.

Asked Thursday for his response to Neal’s demand, Trump didn’t provide a direct answer.

“They’ll speak to my lawyers; they’ll speak to the attorney general,” Trump said at the White House.

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DID THE TRUMP CAMPAIGN COLLUDE WITH RUSSIA?

According to special counsel Robert Mueller, the answer is no.

In his letter dated March 24, Attorney General William Barr quotes from Mueller’s report saying the investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

The letter does not detail what Mueller learned about a broad range of Trump associates who had Russia-related contacts during the 2016 presidential campaign and transition period. It also doesn’t answer why several of those people lied to federal investigators or Congress during the Russia probe.

Barr is confronting concerns that his four-page letter unduly sanitized the full report in Trump’s favor, including on the key question of whether the president obstructed justice. House Democrats have approved subpoenas for Mueller’s entire report and any exhibits and other underlying evidence that the Justice Department might withhold.

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IS TRUMP OUT OF THE WOODS?

No.

Trump also plays a central role in a separate case in New York, where prosecutors have implicated him in a crime. They say Trump directed his personal lawyer Michael Cohen to make illegal hush-money payments to two women as a way to quash potential sex scandals during the campaign. New York prosecutors also are looking into Trump’s inaugural fund.

Congressional investigations also are swirling around the president. Democrats have launched a sweeping probe of Trump, an aggressive investigation that threatens to shadow the president through the 2020 election season.

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Embattled Trump gears up for distractions & more

President Donald Trump departs after a signing ceremony at the White House Tuesday. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

The White House has beefed up its legal team. Its political team is ready to distract and disparage. And President Donald Trump is venting against Democratic prying.

Trump’s plan for responding to the multiplying congressional probes into his campaign, White House and personal affairs is coming into focus as newly empowered Democrats intensify their efforts. Deploying a mix of legal legwork and political posturing, the administration is trying to minimize its exposure while casting the president as the victim of overzealous partisans.

“It’s a disgrace, it’s a disgrace for our country,” Trump said at the White House on Tuesday as he accused Democrats of “presidential harassment.”

Typically used to setting the national or global agenda, presidents are by definition on their back foot when they come under investigation. And the latest fusillade of requests for information has the Trump White House, already increasingly focused on the twin challenges of dealing with the probes and the 2020 election, in a reactive position.

Trump’s response points to his increasing frustration with Congress and his intention to seize on the investigations as evidence that he is under siege in Washington.

While Trump is far from the first president to bristle at Capitol Hill oversight, his enthusiastic embrace of political victimhood is still novel — and stands to serve as a key part of his re-election argument. Trump has made railing against the so-called witch hunt against him a staple of his rallies and speeches, revving up crowds by mocking his investigators and news coverage of their proceedings.

That attitude was emphasized Tuesday by Trump’s son Eric, who was among the 81 people and organizations that the House Judiciary Committee has contacted seeking documents as part of a probe into possible obstruction of justice, corruption and abuse of power. Calling Congress “incompetent,” Eric Trump told Fox News Radio “we’re going to fight the hell out of it. And we’ll fight where we need and we’ll cooperate where we need, but the desperation shows.”

Aware that the shift to divided government would usher in an onslaught of investigations, the White House began making defensive moves late last year. Seeking to be ready for the Democratic-led House, more than a dozen lawyers were added to the White House Counsel’s Office and a seasoned attorney was added to the communications team to handle questions related to the probes.

After Democrats took the House last November, Trump declared that they had to choose between investigating him and earning White House cooperation on matters of bipartisan concern like health care and infrastructure. Trump assessed publicly Tuesday that Democrats had made their choice, saying, “So the campaign begins.”

His aides had already made that determination, with press secretary Sarah Sanders issuing an acerbic statement late Monday calling the Judiciary Committee probe a “disgraceful and abusive investigation.” Trump’s campaign spokeswoman, Kayleigh McEnany, accused Democrats of stopping “at nothing, including destroying the lives and reputations of many innocent Americans who only have sought to serve their country honorably, but who hold different political views than their own.”

White House officials described their plan for addressing the mounting requests as multi-layered. Lawyers in the counsel’s office plan to be cooperative, but are unlikely to provide Democrats with the vast array of documents they’re looking for. In particular, they intend to be deeply protective of executive power and privilege — a defense used by previous administrations against probing lawmakers with varying degrees of success.

Trump said President Barack Obama “didn’t give one letter” when his administration came under congressional investigation. But Obama spokesman Eric Shultz tweeted that the Obama White House produced hundreds of thousands of documents for various congressional inquiries.

Meanwhile, others in the White House and the president’s orbit are preparing to do what they can to bring the fight to Democrats, preparing dossiers about Obama’s invocation of executive privilege when House Republicans investigated his administration. And all acknowledge there is no chance that Trump will stop commenting and criticizing the investigations.

The officials declined to speak on the record in order to discuss the sensitive planning.

The administration approach was on display this week as White House counsel Pat Cipollone pushed back against a request from the House Oversight and Reform Committee for documents related to security clearances for White House officials. In a letter released by the committee chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., Cipollone called the request “unprecedented and extraordinarily intrusive” and offered to provide a briefing and documents “describing the security clearance process.” White House officials said the Cummings inquiries were seen by aides as a thinly veiled attempt to gain potentially embarrassing information on the president’s son-in-law, senior adviser Jared Kushner.

Cummings shot back that the White House position defied “plain common-sense” and said he would consult with colleagues on his next move.

The exchange was predictable, with both sides using the exchange of letters for political means, and in anticipation of almost certain judicial proceedings.

Former Obama administration associate counsel Andy Wright, who also worked as a Capitol Hill investigator, said both parties are aware that their correspondence has multiple audiences.

“You have to assume it’s going to play out in the public space,” he said. “But you also want to create that record of reasonableness so that the court will be inclined to rule in your favor if and when it comes to that.”

As the Judiciary Committee’s voluminous requests circulated around Washington on Monday, the president’s outside array of former allies, associates and staffers communicated among themselves about who was named in the requests and whether they faced new legal jeopardy. Still, some expressed some relief that the requests dealt with documents previously turned over to other investigators. Others maintained the wide-ranging request would bolster Trump’s argument that the probe was a vendetta against him.

But the request affirmed the shadow that current and former staffers still live under. Nearly all the current and former administration officials, friends and family listed on the request have hired private attorneys to navigate both the Mueller probe and now the oversight process — among them Hope Hicks, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, Kushner and Don McGahn.

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House Democrats: Trump clearly obstructed justice

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., questions Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker as he appears before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Declaring it’s “very clear” President Donald Trump obstructed justice, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says the panel is requesting documents Monday from more than 60 people from Trump’s administration, family and business as part of a rapidly expanding Russia investigation.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said the House Judiciary Committee wants to review documents from the Justice Department, the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg. Former White House chief of staff John Kelly and former White House counsel Don McGahn also are likely targets, he said.

“We are going to initiate investigations into abuses of power, into corruption and into obstruction of justice,” Nadler said. “We will do everything we can to get that evidence.”

Asked if he believed Trump obstructed justice, Nadler said, “Yes, I do.”

Nadler isn’t calling the inquiry an impeachment investigation but said House Democrats, now in the majority, are simply doing “our job to protect the rule of law” after Republicans during the first two years of Trump’s term were “shielding the president from any proper accountability.”

“We’re far from making decisions” about impeachment, he said.

In a tweet on Sunday, Trump blasted anew the Russia investigation, calling it a partisan probe unfairly aimed at discrediting his win in the 2016 presidential election. “I am an innocent man being persecuted by some very bad, conflicted & corrupt people in a Witch Hunt that is illegal & should never have been allowed to start – And only because I won the Election!” he wrote.

Nadler’s comments follow a bad political week for Trump. He emerged empty-handed from a high-profile summit with North Korea leader Kim Jong Un on denuclearization and Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, in three days of congressional testimony, publicly characterized the president as a “con man” and “cheat.”

Newly empowered House Democrats are flexing their strength with blossoming investigations. A half-dozen House committees are now probing alleged coordination between Trump associates and Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election, Trump’s tax returns and possible conflicts of interest involving the Trump family business and policy-making. The House oversight committee, for instance, has set a Monday deadline for the White House to turn over documents related to security clearances after The New York Times reported that the president ordered officials to grant his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s clearance over the objections of national security officials.

Nadler’s added lines of inquiry also come as special counsel Robert Mueller is believed to be wrapping up his work into possible questions of Trump campaign collusion and obstruction in the Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. In his testimony, Cohen acknowledged he did not witness or know directly of collusion between Trump aides and Russia but had his “suspicions.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., on Sunday accused House Democrats of prejudging Trump as part of a query based purely on partisan politics.

“I think Congressman Nadler decided to impeach the president the day the president won the election,” McCarthy said. “Listen to exactly what he said. He talks about impeachment before he even became chairman and then he says, ‘you’ve got to persuade people to get there.’ There’s nothing that the president did wrong.”

“Show me where the president did anything to be impeached…Nadler is setting the framework now that the Democrats are not to believe the Mueller report,” he said.

Nadler said Sunday his committee will seek to review the Mueller report but stressed the investigation “goes far beyond collusion.”

He pointed to what he considered several instances of obstruction of justice by the president, including the “1,100 times he referred to the Mueller investigation as a ‘witch hunt’” as well Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI director James Comey in 2017. According to Comey, Trump had encouraged the then-FBI director to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Trump has denied he told Comey to end the Flynn probe.

“It’s very clear that the president obstructed justice,” Nadler said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has kept calls for impeachment at bay by insisting that Mueller first must be allowed to finish his work, and present his findings publicly — though it’s unclear whether the White House will allow its full release.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who chairs the House intelligence committee, on Sunday also stressed that it’s too early to make judgments about impeachment.

“That is something that we will have to await Bob Mueller’s report and the underlying evidence to determine. We will also have to look at the whole body of improper and criminal actions by the president including those campaign finance crimes to determine whether they rise to the level of removal from office,” Schiff said.

Nadler and McCarthy spoke on ABC’s “This Week,” and Schiff appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

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Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick contributed to this report.

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The state of Donald Trump is not good

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address had a proposition for Democrats: Set aside investigations and make deals instead.

“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” Trump said.

The line landed with a thud — and even a smattering of laughs — but the president didn’t appear bothered. The offer wasn’t a serious pitch, but a preview of how Trump plans to defend himself in the difficult months to come. With the special counsel probe nearing its end and newly empowered House Democrats just getting started, the president is bracing for a flurry of subpoenas, high-profile hearings and political recriminations.

Trump’s third address to Congress came at perhaps the most vulnerable moment yet of his two-year presidency, troubled by unfulfilled promises, encroaching investigations and a splintering Republican Party.

Haunted by fallout from the longest government shutdown in history and facing the potential of another one next week, his message to lawmakers marked an attempt to seize the high ground ahead of a contentious re-election fight and looming oversight probes.

“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said.

Trump, who successfully ran against Washington in 2016, is gearing up to paint Democrats as purveyors of the “politics of revenge, resistance and retribution.”

It’s a gambit that delighted Republicans in the room, who long ago tired of Trump’s combative approach toward opponents and investigators. But the strategy appeared destined to last for one night only — and couldn’t have found a more unlikely promoter.

Trump has hardly held back against Democrats in recent days. Hours before the speech he assailed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer after the New York Democrat criticized him. Trump said Schumer was “upset that he didn’t win the Senate, after spending a fortune, like he thought he would.” Earlier in the week, in an appeal for border security, Trump argued that “Dems do nothing.”

And Trump had warned in November that if Democrats move on his tax returns and seek to stymie his presidency under investigations, “then we’re going to do the same thing and government comes to a halt.”

Democrats, who retook the House majority in 2018 in large part because they pledged to block Trump’s agenda and launch the sweeping investigations the president rails against, see the investigation as a fulfillment of their own pledge to voters.

“Tonight, the President spoke about the honor of being in the House Chamber, and all the progress that has been achieved here,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “But at the same time, he threatened the United States Congress not to exercise its constitutional responsibility of oversight.”

In fact, the onslaught of Democratic investigations into potential misconduct and Trump’s controversial policies was set to kick into high gear barely 36 hours after the president left the House chamber.

Just this week, Democrats are preparing to hold hearings on Trump’s family separation policy along the U.S.-Mexico border and the possibility of releasing his tax returns. Friday will feature testimony from acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker regarding his oversight of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe and from Michael Cohen, the president’s longtime political and business fixer who is a central figure in the investigation.

Trump’s pleas for action on area of common ground like infrastructure, prescription drug pricing and ending the spread of HIV seemed aimed at centrist voters who have strayed from his orbit after two rollercoaster years. Yet his ability to fully reach across the aisle remains hampered by the ongoing battle over his efforts to secure funding for his signature campaign promise — the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico that Democrats have vowed to block.

And even as he attempted to outmaneuver Democrats, Trump is confronting his own party’s newfound willingness to stray from his orbit as lawmakers debate immigration legislation ahead of a Feb. 15 funding deadline. Wayward Republicans undercut Trump during the five-week government shutdown, and White House allies now acknowledge there is insufficient GOP support on Capitol Hill to sustain Trump through another shutdown fight.

Even in the hours before Trump took the rostrum, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell dropped his longstanding demand that the president first agree to sign any funding bill before he allows a vote on it. As Democratic and Republican negotiators met on Capitol Hill, McConnell said he hoped Trump would sign whatever compromise emerges.

White House allies acknowledge it would be foolish to expect Trump to hold fire in the face of those probes and refrain from name-calling and efforts to delegitimize the investigations. Still, the president’s allies hope voters will at least give Trump credit for trying to reach across the aisle.

“In a lot of ways this is the first campaign speech for 2020,” said Jason Miller, a former top Trump campaign communications aide. “This is the president’s opportunity to demonstrate his vision for the country and where he’d like to go, and also talk about his accomplishments over the last two years in a setting that is unique to the presidency.”

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Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Catherine Lucey contributed.

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Zeke Miller has covered the White House and politics in Washington since 2011. Follow him at http://twitter.com/zekejmiller

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