The day is stretching on, and tempers are running hot in the House Judiciary Committee. President Donald Trump’s acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, has been parrying questions from Democrats about the Robert Mueller probe for several hours. And Rep. Doug Collins, newly elevated as the committee’s top Republican, has been playing defense.
“If you want to sit down there, you can go sit down there, but you’re not his lawyer,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who’s been spending time in Iowa and New Hampshire lately, snipes at Collins. The lanky Georgian fires back: “And if you had any questions actually related to this [hearing], instead of running for president, we could get this done!”
Friday’s scene was child’s play compared to what’s to come if Democrats move forward with impeaching Trump — an action that would begin in the Judiciary Committee, making Collins, 52, an instant star as Trump’s chief defender.
Thing is, he’s an odd fit for the job. “I truly do not get up every morning trying to tick someone off,” says Collins back in his office, next to the room where he stores the cot he has slept on every workweek in Washington the past six years. Indeed the Baptist preacher and Air Force Reserve chaplain in wire-rim glasses who used to own a scrapbooking store with his wife has the résumé of someone who has spent a great deal of his life not ticking people off. He’s known for passing bipartisan bills. And his rise from a congressional newbie in 2013 to vice chair of the House Republican Conference, the fifth-highest post in GOP leadership, shows he can make friends.
What happens when Mueller comes back and says there’s no collusion?
He even sent a letter cheerfully commending the early actions of new Democratic committee chairman Jerry Nadler, a wide-framed legislative brawler with a reputation for ruffling feathers. “He is a classic Manhattan New Yorker. I’m north Georgia. I’m country, he’s city,” Collins says, acknowledging the contrast with a smile.
While political stardom awaits, so does peril. Collins is set to become a talk show villain to those who see Trump’s actions as unconstitutional and/or a scapegoat among conservatives if he falters. Is he ready for it? “Oh yeah,” Collins says without hesitation. “I have a firm faith that there is nothing I will face that I’ve not been prepared for.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders are reluctant to talk about impeaching the president — in large part for fear it would work to his political benefit. But with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign reportedly wrapping up soon, on top of the dirt unearthed by Congress and New York prosecutors, the pressure will only build. Trump, meanwhile, slammed “partisan investigations” before Congress during Tuesday’s State of the Union.
When asked about the likelihood of impeachment, Collins digs in: “I’ll flip the hypothetical: What happens when Mueller comes back and says there’s no collusion?” It should be noted that, in addition to degrees in political science and divinity, Collins is a trained defense attorney educated at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School. When asked what he learned from the Senate’s handling of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings last fall, he takes a shot at the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “It was really disappointing for me that Mrs. Feinstein, who is no newbie to Senate rules, chose to withhold information that came up at the last minute,” he says, referring to sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh. So he won’t play such games himself? “Look, I’m going to be up-front. I’ll use the procedural issues I can,” Collins responds. “I’m a big rule person. He who knows the rules wins the game.”
His experience with tricky situations is as vast as the job titles he’s held. After graduating from North Georgia College & State University in his hometown of Gainesville, Collins worked as a salesman, a Navy chaplain and a senior pastor at Chicopee Baptist Church. Elected to the Statehouse in 2007, Collins became a key architect of a compromise to reform the HOPE scholarship. The popular program, which paid college tuition for A and B students, was nearing insolvency without a cut. “It took a lot of salesmanship on his part … that was a delicate job,” says David Ralston, the longtime Republican speaker of the House in Georgia.
When constituents came to him about a ban against Americans adopting Russian children with disabilities, Collins took the issue while others ignored it. “He’s been the sole consistent voice in D.C., to be honest,” says Pam Romano, who lives in Jefferson, Georgia. It was partly personal: Collins’ daughter, Jordan, uses a wheelchair and has had dozens of surgeries since being born with a severe form of spina bifida. “She’s taught me humility, that being different is sometimes just being special,” he says. Collins was deployed as a chaplain at Balad Air Base during the Iraq War in 2008, an experience that saw him cross not just political divides but also battle lines. “We had insurgents that our doctors were treating as well as our guys,” he remembers.
The war experience puts in perspective efforts such as Collins’ strong partnership with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a Judiciary Committee Democrat from New York who also arrived in Congress in 2013. Jeffries remembers Collins bringing together the Judiciary freshmen that year, telling the group that regardless of their political differences, they would be working together for a while — so they might as well get to know one another. “Collins is a good man with a good heart and a good head to get things done,” Jeffries says.
The progressive Jeffries acknowledges that the pair will have their disagreements, including on a potential impeachment case. But Jeffries believes Collins — who represents the third most Republican-leaning congressional seat in the country — will be able to navigate that tricky line, given his track record. In one legislative sprint last summer, the two passed three bills together, including the Music Modernization Act (to adapt audio copyright issues to the age of digital streaming), which was inspired by their mutual tastes — the pair even released a bipartisan Spotify playlist. In the north Georgia mountains, “they have hootenannies on the front porch,” says Collins, a lover of ’80s alternative bands and country music. Collins and Jeffries also passed the First Step Act, a much-lauded criminal justice reform law Trump signed in December. “Putting those moments of partisanship aside, I think he will remain committed to finding common ground,” Jeffries says.
Each semester, Collins gives Georgia students a night tour of the Capitol. He thinks of how the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman navigated the times they were in. Impeachment would place Collins in the middle of another significant moment in history. “Bloom where you’re planted,” he tells those students, a call for humility, a reminder that you are put in a time and place for a reason. This time around, the man of faith may as well be preaching to himself.