‘Go on offense’: Inside Democrats’ strategy to try to undercut GOP investigations and protect Biden

Congressional Democrats are betting that a coordinated offense is their best defense against the coming Republican investigative onslaught.

Democrats on Capitol Hill, at the White House, in agencies and in outside political groups are gearing up to do battle with the Republican committee chairs probing all corners of the Biden administration as well as the Biden family’s financial dealings.

The significant effort at the outset is a sign of the danger the GOP investigations and their subpoena power pose to Biden’s political prospects heading into his reelection. The stakes of knocking down the GOP probes have only grown over the past month as Biden is now grappling with a special counsel investigating his handling of classified documents found at his private residence and office.

Even before the first subpoena or hearing, Democrats have enlisted polling firms and focus groups to try and undercut the coming investigations and protect Biden with the 2024 campaign approaching.

Their plans include launching sustained attacks against the two Republicans expected to lead the most aggressive probes: Oversight Chairman James Comer of Kentucky and Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, who is also leading the new so-called weaponization of government subcommittee with a wide investigative mandate. Meanwhile, outside groups are planning to bring the fight local and visit more than a dozen Biden-leaning congressional districts to go after vulnerable Republicans involved in the investigations.

At the center of the strategy will be Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York, whose office has already resurrected a standing investigations meeting then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had held when Democrats were in power. The meeting is intended to help staffers of different committees get on the same page with their messaging and counter-strategy. Committee aides have also been working closely to coordinate with administration officials likely to be targets of GOP subpoenas, connecting regularly to discuss plans for dealing with Republican requests for information and attacks on agencies.

“Clearly, when they when they go off on nonsense, we’re gonna push back at it,” New York Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, told CNN.

It’s a strategy that in some ways mimics the way congressional Republicans served as then-President Donald Trump’s attack dogs after Democrats took control of the House in 2019. Republicans villainized House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff of California, who led the House’s first impeachment of Trump, and Trump was in constant communication with his GOP House allies during the subsequent impeachment trial.

Republicans have dismissed Democrats’ attempts to try to blunt their investigations.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Comer told CNN when asked about the Democratic efforts. “I have never seen an administration work so closely with outside groups to attack the investigators.”

Democrats will have their first public opportunity to test drive their strategy on Wednesday when the House Judiciary and Oversight committees each hold their first public hearings, one on “the Biden Border crisis” and the other on abuses of pandemic spending. Aides say Democratic staff and members worked through the weekend preparing for the hearings. While the hearings themselves may be a footnote in a long saga ahead for Democrats’ efforts to defend Biden, it will be an important opportunity for the party to cement themselves as being effective at countering GOP messaging.

“This is a trial run,” one Democratic aide said of the significance of the hearing.

In interviews with more than a dozen Democratic members and staffers, they contend one of the biggest challenges going forward will be striking the right balance between sharing concerns about objectively complicated topics like dysfunction at the border and the mishandling of classified documents with their desire to play messaging defense for the President and his administration and a belief that Republicans are unfairly zeroing in on Biden on issues that were problems long before he was in office.

“We obviously believe there’s a very big role for oversight and making sure that government laws and programs translate for the people,” Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, told CNN. “But I’m afraid that the Republicans have come to the belief that the purpose of oversight is just to harass the other side, and to engage in partisan wild goose chases. So we will be there to act as a truth squad refuting and debunking the conspiracy theories and the scandals du jour that they throw up at us.”

Raskin, who was a member of the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol, said he and other ranking Democratic members are viewing their work through the lens of the current political environment, one that is still deeply divided two years after the attack.

“We’re coming out of a wrenching period of social and political conflict because of a violent insurrection unleashed against Congress and the vice president,” Raskin said. “From my perspective, Kevin McCarthy has essentially swallowed MAGA and the insurrection and they are now driving the bus over there. And our task on Oversight is to continue to defend basic Democratic institutions and legislative process the best we can against a MAGA agenda.”

Getting cover from the outside

Democrats say they’re also working closely with an outside political group, the Congressional Integrity Project, which is expected to play the role of messaging clearinghouse in the coming months. Already, the group’s polling on how the public perceives the GOP’s broad investigations into the Biden administration has served as a guidepost for staffers as they plot their defense.

Brad Woodhouse, a senior adviser for Congressional Integrity Project, said that the group will serve several functions for the Biden White House and congressional Democrats, including polling, opposition research and political events. In the leadup to the new Congress, the group sent reporters daily emails attacking Comer. On Monday, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, a manager for Trump’s second impeachment trial, joined the group’s press call Monday to attack the opening hearings this week for the Oversight and Judiciary committees.

In addition to going after committee chairs like Comer and Jordan, the political group also says it plans to hold events in the 18 Republican-held congressional districts that Biden won, in an attempt to either turn them against the GOP investigations — or paint them with the same brush as the Republicans leading the charge against Biden.

“Our role is really to go on offense,” Woodhouse said. “There’s almost a dozen of these members in California and New York, blue states in presidential election years in districts won by Joe Biden. I’m not sure they want the national conversation to be dominated by James Comer’s Oversight hearings.”

Core to Democratic strategy is the belief Republicans will overreach in their requests into Biden, his family, his administration’s decision on the border and the mishandling of classified documents — and that Democrats can seize on those moments to show a contrast to the American people between their ideology and the GOP’s.

“If they launch frivolous investigations, we’ll point out that that’s not what they ran on,” Rep. Ro Khanna of California, a Democratic member of House Oversight, told CNN. “If it becomes obvious that this is singling out President Biden for a political attack, that’s what the Democrats will point out. And those things tend to backfire. I mean, they backfire on both sides. If people in the country conclude that Congress is more interested in investigating than legislating, it doesn’t help the party doing that.”

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who was named the No. 2 Democrat on the Oversight Committee this week under Raskin, said that part of the strategy is to let Republicans go too far on their own, but she also warned that no one should interpret Democrats’ strategy as a passive one.

“I think there is standing back, but I think there is also a little bit of casting a reel and letting them really show who they are,” Ocasio Cortez said of the Democratic strategy. “It’s not a strategy of just stepping aside and letting the whole world see what they are doing. I think it is actually a little bit more nuanced.”

The battlegrounds

Already, Republicans have fired off dozens of requests for documents and testimony on a string of areas they want to investigate. In the Judiciary Committee, Republicans have also begun hinting they could move swiftly to impeach Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, something Democrats argue would be unprecedented in the modern era with just one other secretary — William Belknap, the war secretary — impeached back in 1876 for a kickback scheme for making official appointments.

Top officials in the Biden White House and agencies like the Department of Homeland Security have been preparing for months for GOP demands of documents and testimony — and the subpoenas likely to follow them — even before Republicans won control of the House.

Cognizant that the border has the potential to be a political problem for Biden in his reelection, Democrats are also ramping up efforts to help educate their members. Texas Rep. Veronica Escobar, a member of both the Judiciary Committee and the House Democrats’ messaging arm in House leadership, told CNN she planned to resume immigration trips for lawmakers that she led back in 2019, which led to 20 percent of House members traveling to down to the US-Mexico border.

“I want to make sure our members are as well versed in the realities on the ground as possible,” Escobar said.

In addition to the border, the House Judiciary Committee’s new so-called weaponization of government subcommittee is expected to have some of the fiercest fights. The panel, which was given an expanded mandate under the deal Speaker Kevin McCarthy cut with the GOP dissidents last month, is likely to target the Justice Department, FBI, social media companies and possibly more.

House Democrats have yet to name their members to the panel or signal which Democrat will sit opposite Jordan at the top of the dais for what could be some of the Republicans’ most high-profile hearings tied to their oversight.

And in the House Oversight Committee, Comer has quickly become the House GOP point for investigating both Biden’s family finances as well as the classified documents found at his former private office and Delaware residence.

Democrats have responded to Comer’s attacks on Biden by arguing that he could be running the same investigation against Trump — which Comer has tried to argue isn’t necessary because Democrats already investigated the former president.

In an early sign of how Raskin will try to rebut Comer’s investigation, he requested visitor logs Tuesday in a letter to the Secret Service from the homes of Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence, mimicking Comer’s request last week for logs from Biden’s Delaware residence.

The Oversight panel’s first hearing Wednesday isn’t about Hunter Biden or classified documents, however, it’s being held to examine abuses of federal Covid pandemic relief funding.

Another factor for Raskin specifically is he’ll be managing the responsibilities of his committee while receiving treatment for Lymphoma. It’s something that Raskin says hasn’t affected his ability to do the job so far, but if he needs them, Raskin says he has full confidence in his colleagues to do the job.

“I have been able to organize my chemotherapy sessions around the congressional recess calendar, so I don’t need to be doing it while we’re in session and I’ve not missed any votes so far. And I’ve not missed any meetings or hearings,” Raskin said. “I understand that the best skill of a captain is deploying the skills of the members of the team.”

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