U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, speaks during a hearing on July 12, 2019. (Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times)
Photo: ANNA MONEYMAKER/NYT
Photo: ANNA MONEYMAKER/NYT

Georgia’s Doug Collins stepping into the Mueller spotlight 

Originally published on 4/1/2019

WASHINGTON - Last month, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins sat in the House Judiciary Committee’s cavernous hearing room touting his work with Democrats on an antitrust bill that would allow local newspapers to collectively bargain with tech giants such as Facebook. 

Weeks later, the Republican accused the panel’s Democrats of engaging in “politics at its most desperate” after they approved subpoenas for a dozen witnesses in their probe of President Donald Trump. 

Part honey, part vinegar would be one way to describe the strategy the Gainesville lawmaker has deployed since becoming the Judiciary Committee’s top Republican earlier this year. Collins, 52, describes it in slightly different terms: “offensive defense.”

The four-term congressman ascended to the role in part because of his bipartisan policy chops. But Collins has taken a more aggressive stance as he’s tangled with Democrats on their White House investigation, using procedural tactics and rhetorical flourishes to try to trip up their inquiry at every step. 

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With special counsel Robert Mueller preparing to testify before Judiciary and another House panel Wednesday – a blockbuster mega-hearing that is expected to become a defining moment in the Trump presidency - Collins is undoubtedly stepping onto the biggest stage of his political career.

Democrats are hoping Mueller’s testimony will ignite more public furor about what they see as obstructive behavior by the president, anger they think could help them at the ballot box next year. 

Collins has signaled he’ll zero in on the origins of Mueller’s probe and some of his investigators, whom he describes as a “corrupt cabal.” And he plans to frame Democrats as desperately grasping at anything that will justify their White House investigation. 

“They simply don’t like this president who was elected by the people in 2016,” Collins said Sunday on Fox News. “They’re just trying to derail him for 2020.”

‘Fishing expedition’

Collins has spent the better part of the past year preparing for this Mueller moment.

The fast-talking former lawyer has become a fixture on cable news shows, where he’s tenaciously defended the president and polished one-liners about what he’s labeled the Democratic “fishing expedition” into Trump’s background.

Behind the scenes, he’s hired additional investigators and forged relationships with the national press while raising questions about whether individual members of Mueller’s team possessed an anti-Trump bias. One by one he’s publicly released transcripts from a since-concluded GOP probe into the origins of the Russia investigation at the FBI and Justice Department.

Democrats have accused the GOP of turning a blind eye to Trump’s misdeeds, but Collins felt vindicated by the Mueller report, which concluded Trump’s campaign didn’t conspire with Russia and didn’t make a call about potential obstructive acts by the president. 

The Mueller investigation cost a lot of money and “found nothing,” Collins said in an interview earlier this year. “We have an investigation that actually showed real problems at the DOJ,” he said, “so we’re going to just continue to contrast those two.”

He’s echoed the calls of many of his Republican colleagues who want Democrats to apologize for repeatedly claiming there was evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. Many of his Democratic colleagues have scoffed at the request.

“I certainly don’t think there’s anything (for Democrats) to apologize for. I think the president has got a lot to apologize for,” said U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, a Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Collins’ stance, he added, “probably comes with the terrain (of being the ranking Republican on the committee).”

“I hope that he doesn’t go down that path so much that he loses his ability to work in a bipartisan fashion,” Cohen said.

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While 95 House Democrats voted last week to move forward on impeachment proceedings — an action that must originate with Collins’ Judiciary Committee — party leaders have tamped down on such talk and urged lawmakers to first win over public opinion by focusing on oversight work. 

Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, Collins’ Democratic counterpart, indicated Mueller’s testimony could be a pivotal moment for shaping public opinion. 

"This is a president who has violated the law six ways from Sunday," the New Yorker said on “Fox News Sunday.” 

"We have to present — or let Mueller present — those facts to the American people ... because the administration must be held accountable and no president can be above the law."

‘Good intentions’ 

The Judiciary panel has one of Capitol Hill’s broadest policy jurisdictions, touching on subjects as disparate as immigration and net neutrality. Democrats have rapidly produced a raft of legislation seeking to advance key campaign issues such as gun controlvoting rights and campaign finance.

In the minority for the first time since he arrived in Washington in 2013, Collins said he’ll “work where I can” on areas of policy overlap, but he also vowed not to “simply lay down and be a willing participant in their partisan agenda.” He hasn’t hesitated to gum up the process for some of the Democrats’ top priorities using the congressional rule book, a task he’s undertaken with zeal.

He took the exceedingly rare step of challenging Speaker Nancy Pelosi on her decorum last week after she called Trump’s recent tweets about four freshman lawmakers “racist” in a speech on the House floor. The parliamentarian ruled in his favor, but his victory was ultimately short-lived. 

At the same time, Collins has collaborated with Democrats on issues such as technology and compensation for the victims of 9/11. 

Collins won considerable bipartisan goodwill for his work last year steering an effort tackling prison sentencing and recidivism through both chambers of Congress, as well as music licensing and international data access bills.

“When he’s in an open and bipartisan mood he’s absolutely delightful to work with,” said Maryland U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Democratic member of the Judiciary Committee. “When he strikes the pose of a warrior for the Trump machine, then he offers us a different side. But I think in truth he has really good mannerisms, good intentions.”

The heart of his new job as the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, however, has required him to butt heads with his Democratic colleagues as Trump’s frontline defender.

Not only is that a major expectation among Collins’ Republican colleagues, but also among his constituents in northeast Georgia. His 9th Congressional District is the third-most-Republican in the country, according to the nonpartisan analysis firm the Cook Political Report, and Trump is overwhelmingly popular there. Trump won the district, which stretches from Gainesville to the South Carolina border, by 59 points in 2016.

Republican U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, a fellow Georgian from West Point, called Collins a “perfect fit” for the high-profile position.

“He’s one of the few members up there that understands policy in-depth, and he can articulate it,” Ferguson said, alluding to Collins’ past role as a senior GOP message-maker. “He’s very quick on his feet.”

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