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House Judiciary Committee Democrats add legal firepower for Trump oversight

uschools/iStock
uschools/iStock

(WASHINGTON) — Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee are adding two high-profile lawyers to their team as consultants, public corruption and ethics experts who have studied obstruction of justice and will help Democrats ramp up efforts to explore possible legal and ethics issues involving President Donald Trump and his administration.

Ambassador Norm Eisen, a former Obama administration ethics czar and U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic who now serves as a fellow at Brookings, and Barry Berke, a prominent defense attorney and co-chairman of the litigation department at New York law firm Kramer Levin, are set to join the key committee as special oversight counsels to help organize Democrats’ investigative plans related to the Justice Department and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the committee announced Tuesday.

The two have been vocal critics of the Trump White House on television and in opinion columns, and have written extensively about the potential obstruction of justice case against the president. While Democrats have tamped down discussion of impeaching Trump, the results of Eisen and Berke’s investigative work with the committee could eventually inform any potential impeachment inquiry, should Democrats decide to open one.

“Congress has a constitutional duty to be a check and balance against abuses of power when necessary,” Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-New York, said in a statement. “Before anything else, however, we have to follow the facts and conduct the sort of oversight that has been completely absent over the last two years. The House Judiciary Committee is determined to ask critical questions, gather all the information, judiciously assess the evidence, and make sure that the facts are not hidden from the American people.”

Among the specific areas of interest for Nadler are probing President Trump’s frequent attacks against the department and special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, and whether the president has tried to obstruct the special counsel’s efforts to probe Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Democrats on the panel, working with Eisen and Berke, will roll out its oversight agenda in the coming weeks, according to a committee source.

“We will provide a check and a balance, we will hold the president accountable,” Nadler told ABC’s George Stephanopolous in November when asked if he believed President Trump has obstructed justice. “He will learn that he is accountable, that he’s not above the law and that’s part of what we’ll have to look at.”

The committee began its oversight work last week with public testimony from Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who testified that he had not briefed the White House on the Mueller probe, but refused to answer questions about his public comments on the investigation or his conversations with Trump. Nadler and Democrats plan to bring Whitaker back to Capitol Hill for a private deposition to answer those questions.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and leaders of the Judiciary Committee that would take up any impeachment proceedings against the president have been cautious, saying that any effort needs to wait for the results of the Mueller probe, and would potentially need the support of at least some Republicans.

“We will have to see from the Mueller investigation, from whatever we find, because Congress should be active in our own investigations and our own upholding of our duty to hold the administration accountable and to provide a check and a balance,” Nadler told ABC News in November.

Both Eisen and Berke plan to set aside their professional portfolios as they prepare to work with the committee, according to a committee source. Eisen is a senior fellow at Brookings and a CNN political commentator. He also is a founder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, a liberal watchdog group that filed the emoluments lawsuit against Trump, claiming he has violated the Constitution by profiting from his business empire while serving in office.

The New York City-based Berke, who has served as pro bono counsel to CREW, will similarly scale back his portfolio while working from Washington with the committee, according to a committee source.

Eisen and Berke, who will help Democrats craft their public-facing investigative and oversight strategy on the Judiciary Committee, have significant experience collaborating and contextualizing the Trump-Russia investigation. They two have worked together on op-eds for the New York Times and Washington Post responding to developments in Mueller’s investigation, and have penned a series of reports of legal analysis on the potential obstruction of justice case against Trump.

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