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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Even before Robert Mueller has delivered his final communiqué, Democrats have activated a new phase in the Trump-Russia wars that ultimately could prove more damaging to the president than the special counsel's investigation.

Why it matters: For Trump, this has been a behind-the-scenes probe, with sensational yet intermittent revelations. Now, it's about to become a persistent and very public process — at best, a nuisance; at worst, a threat to his office.

  • What's new: Whether or not Mueller is sitting on a grand finale, Democrats are picking up the baton with a vast probe that already involves a half-dozen committees, and will include public hearings starring reluctant witnesses.
  • What House Democrats are thinking after the public Cohen hearing, via an email to Axios from MSNBC analyst Matt Miller: "Incredible to start an investigation and have six months' worth of leads on the first day."

What Democrats are planning: 

  • They want to call Trump family members — with subpoenas, if necessary.
  • The Democrats' investigation will touch Trump's businesses, foundation and presidency — and could extend into 2020, top Democrats tell me. 
  • Besides Russia, topics include conflicts of interest, money laundering, and Jared Kushner's security clearance and other White House clearances. (N.Y. Times scoop: "Trump Ordered Officials to Give Kushner a Security Clearance.")
  • Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who's on the House Oversight Committee, tells Axios' Alayna Treene that committees are "zeroing in on the Moscow project, the Russia connection and the influence of other foreign actors like Saudi Arabia."

Democrats expect all that may serve as a Rosetta Stone to arguable "high crimes and misdemeanors," touching off an impeachment process. 

  • Well-wired Democrats tell us that even if the impeachment process doesn't lead to a showdown vote, so much energy in the party is invested in the idea that they see little chance of heading off at least the opening stages. 

Coming attractions: House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said the committee will hear from Felix Sater, a Russia-born executive who worked with Cohen on Trump Tower in Moscow, in an open hearing on March 14, per AP.

  • The committee also plans to bring in longtime Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg.

Be smart ... Kurt Bardella, a Republican former senior adviser for House Oversight, writing in USA Today:

  • "It will only be a matter of time before the Oversight Committee requests that Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner speak to congressional investigators about their meetings, conversations and plans for a Trump Tower project in Moscow."
  • "The Trump Organization will receive requests for all emails, documents, notes and other evidence related to the internal deliberations about the project."

Go deeper:

Subscribe to Axios AM/PM for a daily rundown of what's new and why it matters, directly from Mike Allen.
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Go deeper

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
57 mins ago - Economy & Business

The unicorn stampede is coming

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Airbnb and DoorDash plan to go public in the next few weeks, capping off a very busy year for IPOs.

What's next: You ain't seen nothing yet.

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Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.