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.”