Now that the Mueller investigation is over, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi faces a stark choice. With a small but vocal segment of her caucus and much of the party’s base itching for impeachment for the past several months, Pelosi has to decide whether House Democrats should continue with a full-fledged investigation of President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia or move on to other parts of the Democratic agenda, like health care.
It’s a situation reminiscent of one her recent predecessor, former Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, had to navigate. While the parallels aren’t perfect, the California Democrat may find herself dealing with dynamics similar to those Boehner had in 2014 regarding the investigation into the deadly 2012 raid on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. That attack took the lives of four Americans, including the US ambassador to Libya.
While the two investigations bear any number of differences, there are political realities that may be similar.
The speaker since 2011, Boehner was familiar with how a small but determined group of very conservative House members had prompted a number of showdowns over the debt limit, cutting spending and a fruitless government shutdown.
But for Michael Steel, a former spokesman for Boehner, Pelosi’s upcoming predicament more closely resembles the Benghazi fight. “It doesn’t feel like the government shutdown fight, something that was kind of colossally stupid and public and unnecessary,” Steel told CNN. “It feels like the debate over creating the Benghazi Select Committee.”
In May 2014, Boehner, already weary from managing the infighting of his party, had to decide whether to give in to demands by many fellow Republicans for a more thorough investigation into what had happened in Benghazi.
The Republican speaker had up to that point rebuffed the push from conservatives in his conference to create a special investigative body, deferring to the existing probes by the House’s standing committees. But since early 2013, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, former Michigan Rep. and current CNN contributor Mike Rogers, had made it clear he had little interest in pursuing the Benghazi incident any further, the conservative Weekly Standard reported.
That frustrated other Republican members as new evidence emerged through Freedom of Information Act requests in early 2014 suggesting the Obama administration had misled the public about the nature of the attack.
Boehner, too, became convinced. Conservatives would get their select committee on Benghazi, headed by one of their own, Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, who had the confidence of leadership. It was from Gowdy’s own investigation that the revelations about Hillary Clinton’s private email server emerged, dogging Clinton throughout her unsuccessful bid for the White House in 2016.
Like Boehner, Pelosi so far seems to be relying on the standing committees and trying to move on. She told her leadership team Monday night that House Democrats should focus on their policy agenda and message, not on Russian election interference, according to two sources.
But the pressure on Pelosi to keep digging and to push for more investigations may be hard to resist.
“I think she has thus far calibrated it pretty well,” said Steel. “But she’s not going to be able to do that in the future. Just from a member management point of view, the House Democratic leadership is going to have to allow and encourage a pretty broad slate of investigations.”
And as Boehner discovered with Benghazi, a select committee on all things related to the various questions around Trump and Russia could serve as a pressure relief valve for those members of the Democratic caucus still agitating for more investigations.
There are already signs Pelosi could be moving in that direction. The committee chairs with jurisdiction over these issues have sent a letter to Attorney General William Barr requesting the full Mueller report be released to Congress by April 2. The Justice Department isn’t likely to comply, which would further frustrate Democrats.
A select committee to channel those frustrations into more investigations could help Pelosi balance those ongoing concerns while containing them from the work of the other committees, where Democratic leadership would like to move on from matters related to Russian interference.
More moderate members are cooler to the idea of keeping the Russia questions coming.
“I don’t think our constituents have ever been focused on impeachment. It’s not something we ran on, either,” said Rep. Joe Cunningham, a freshman Democrat from South Carolina. “I think that all Americans want to see the full report and supporting documents – and I think Democrats, Republicans and the President are united on that.”
But plenty of Democrats in Pelosi’s caucus don’t sound ready to move on. Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, told CNN that while he accepts that there was apparently no criminal conspiracy by the Trump campaign to collude with Russians, “That doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of activity with the Russians that ranges from unsavory to treacherous.”
“The strategy going forward is to release the entire report. I’m not interested in Cliff Notes,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a New York Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. “I’m not interested in some rough outline. I’m not interested in the Barr report. We want the Mueller report.”
Pelosi has told the caucus that she herself wants to see the report, according to an aide in the room. As Boehner was on Benghazi, Pelosi isn’t opposed to more probing, as long as it’s done prudently.
“I don’t think she’s going to get that uncomfortable leading the parade as long as they do it in a way that demonstrates that they’re not overeager and bloodthirsty,” said Steel.
That’s why Democratic leadership is quickly quashing the far-left aspirations to pursue impeachment. Freshman Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan has not been deterred by Barr’s letter and has asked the Judiciary Committee to inquire about whether Trump “committed impeachable offenses.” Her resolution on this inquiry, CNN has reported, is expected to be formally introduced next week.
Democratic leadership seems eager to draw a line between asking more questions about Russian interference and pushing to impeach the President. As House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland told CNN when asked about Tlaib’s impeachment resolution: “We’ve indicated we don’t think proceeding on impeachment at this point in time makes sense.”
Nadeam Elshami, Pelosi’s former chief of staff, told CNN the attention of the Democratic caucus in this early stage is unified on seeing the complete Mueller report, which remains in Barr’s hands. “Everybody’s keeping a focus on seeing the full report,” Elshami said. “To me, it really raises more questions and kind of keeps Democrats in the same position moving forward.”
But if Barr and the Justice Department put up a fight over releasing the full report to Congress, the issue could drag on for months. Will the most strident members of the Democratic caucus be satisfied with allowing the process to play out in the usual committees of jurisdiction, or will they agitate for something more, as conservatives did on Benghazi?
“I just don’t see, with Chairman Schiff and Cummings and Nadler, I don’t see that,” said Elshami.
CNN’s Alex Rogers, Ashley Killough and Manu Raju contributed to this report.