In a partisan fight over the release of the Mueller report, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins of Gainesville, center, as the ranking GOP member of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, holds a powerful position on the Republican side of the dispute. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Georgia’s Doug Collins takes lead role in fight over Mueller report

Eleven days later, Collins admonished the same chairman, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, for convening a hearing that amounted to “nothing more than a character assassination” of the star witness, then-acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.

“I’m thinking maybe we just set up a popcorn machine in the back, because … it’s becoming a show,” Collins said in remarks that were carried live on cable news networks.

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 experience. But Collins has also aggressively fought Democrats’ investigations of the Trump administration, using procedural tactics and rhetorical flourishes to trip up their inquiries.

With special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe now completed, Collins has entered the biggest spotlight of his political career.

Democrats on the committee are preparing to go to war for the Mueller report and its underlying documents. Collins, meanwhile, feels like he has new firepower now that a summary of the report from Attorney General William Barr concluded the Trump campaign didn’t conspire with the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election.

“After two years of saying Mueller is everything, now (Democrats) are just trying to fight the president,” Collins said in a recent interview. “I think their political motives are going to show through.”

‘Fishing expedition’

Collins has spent the past several months preparing for this post-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 digging into the minutia of the GOP’s now-concluded probe of the origins of the special counsel’s investigation. One by one he’s publicly released transcripts from that closed-door probe, which delved into the maneuvering at the Justice Department and FBI that led officials to apply for a secret warrant to monitor Trump campaign official Carter Page.

The strategy is an unconventional one. Many of the more headline-grabbing tidbits from the closed-door interviews with Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, former FBI employee Peter Strzok and others were long ago leaked to the press. Collins and his allies, however, see the strategy as a way to highlight what they see as the anti-Trump bias that underpinned the Russia probe.

Democrats have derided Collins’ moves as a way to distract from their investigations of the Trump White House, but he felt vindicated by Barr’s summary. Within 24 hours of its release, South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham announced he would launch his own investigation into whether federal law enforcement improperly sought to stop Trump ahead of the 2016 election.

The Mueller investigation cost a lot of money and “found nothing,” Collins said. “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 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.

Democrats have all but abandoned impeachment debate — which must originate with the Judiciary Committee — since the Barr summary. Yet the panel’s leaders have vowed to forge ahead on their wide-ranging probe of the president, his 2016 campaign, and his personal and businesses dealings. They’ve also ramped up the pressure on Barr to testify before Congress and release the text of the Russia report and its supporting documents.

“The American people deserve to see the facts and judge the President’s actions for themselves,” Nadler said in a March 24 joint statement with House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings and Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff.

‘Good intentions’ 

The Judiciary panel has one of Capitol Hill’s broadest policy jurisdictions, touching everything from immigration to net neutrality. Democrats have rapidly produced a raft of legislation seeking to advance key campaign issues such as gun control, voting 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 Democrats’ top priorities using the congressional rule book, a task he’s undertaken with zeal.

He embarrassed Democratic leaders and created a brief ruckus on the House floor last month when he lured enough Democrats to adopt an amendment to a background check bill that required gun sellers to notify federal immigration agents when an immigrant in the U.S. illegally tries to buy a firearm.

Collins and his team see an opening to collaborate on issues such as intellectual property and another major criminal justice overhaul. Collins won considerable bipartisan goodwill for his work steering an effort tackling prison sentencing and recidivism through both chambers of Congress last year, 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, will require 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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