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Sometime in the mid-1990s, I was talking to a senior Clinton White House official who was in a lousy mood. After Republicans had seized control of the House of Representatives in 1994 for the first time in four decades, they had launched a blizzard of investigations of the Clintons—some legitimate, some less so—and the administration was now besieged by a ton of requests for information and interviews. Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate, the Vince Foster suicide, campaign finance irregularities, and more—the GOP demanded documents on all of it. (And this was before the Monica Lewinsky scandal.) One House Republican chairman on his own issued more than 1,000 subpoenas.
This Clinton official complained to me that under these circumstances it was damn tough for the White House to conduct regular business—overseeing the federal government, dealing with Congress on budgetary and legislative matters, and keeping the country secured. “And we have a lot of the best people in town working for us,” he said.
This official was correct in that regard. The Clinton White House was packed with competent lawyers and political professionals who were highly experienced in governing, politics, communications, and crisis management. By and large, they managed to tend to their day jobs and handle all the investigations hurled at them by the Newt Gingrich-led House Republicans. But it wasn’t easy. And even though the investigations did not bring down the Clinton administration, as many conservatives hoped, they made it more difficult for Clinton’s team to pursue its policy agenda during a time of divided government.
Oversight—after the blue wave bounced nearly 40 Republicans out of the House, Democrats adopted this word as a mantra.
Fast forward two and a half decades: The Trump White House doesn’t have the bodies, the experience, or the competence to effectively manage the investigations and subpoenas that the new House Democratic majority will send its way. Trump is about to receive the political equivalent of a top-to-bottom medical examination. It will be uncomfortable, if not painful. He won’t be able to tweet his way out of this. His lieutenants could well be enmired, responding to or challenging information requests on multiple fronts, some of which may end up before the courts. (Some might have to lawyer up.) With a White House already fueled by chaos—how many wheels can come off this bus?—the big question is: How far will the Democrats go?
Prior to the midterms, there was some talk within progressive circles of impeachment. And right after the election, Tom Steyer, the liberal billionaire who funded a petition campaign to impeach Trump, renewed his call, saying that should Democratic leaders “refuse to give up conventional orthodoxy and take up impeachment proceedings when the new Congress convenes, freshmen members” should challenge them. But Democratic leaders—most notably, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the top-ranking Dem in the House, and Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), the incoming chair of the Judiciary Committee—swatted away the notion. And in an interview with MSNBC, the fiery Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), who had recently called for impeachment, downplayed this option and said that as the expected new chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, she would focus on legislation that could help prevent another financial collapse. But, she added, she would also concentrate on oversight.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times/Redux
Oversight—after the blue wave bounced nearly 40 Republicans out of the House, Democrats adopted this word as a mantra. They contended, accurately, that during the Trump years congressional Republicans had abdicated their oversight responsibility. But as Trump fearmongered and claimed that the prospect of “Presidential Harassment” was driving down stock prices, Pelosi and her compatriots loudly noted that their first mission would be legislation to help Americans in practical ways: health care, education, voting rights. They promised to deploy their oversight power in a reasonable fashion.
But what might reasonable oversight look like? Weeks before the election, Nadler and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the senior Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, each released lists of all the information requests and subpoenas they had sent regarding Trump and his lieutenants over the previous two years. They covered more than 100 investigation-worthy topics: Trump’s violation of the emoluments clause via foreign payments for his business; White House security clearances involving Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, John Bolton, and others; Trump’s response to the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico; the deadly ambush in Niger that left four American soldiers dead; Kushner’s and Ivanka’s and Trump’s potential conflicts of interest; the dealings of the Trump Foundation; the firing of FBI Director James Comey; the administration’s measures (or lack thereof) to secure elections from foreign interference; the hush money payments to Stormy Daniels. It would take an army of congressional investigators years to conduct inquiries of all of it.
And there are obvious targets that didn’t have to be on any list. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who will take the helm of the Intelligence Committee, will revive elements of the Trump-Russia investigation that House Republicans conducted shoddily and then prematurely shut down. The House Foreign Affairs Committee will no doubt consider vetting the Trump-Saudi relationship following the horrific murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Homeland Security Committee could investigate the Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrant families. Ditto for the Armed Services Committee and Trump’s decision to send 15,000 troops to the border to deal with a migrant caravan. After Michael Cohen’s recent guilty plea that led to the revelation that Trump had secretly interacted with the office of Russian leader Vladimir Putin to get help for a Trump tower deal in Moscow, different House committees will be considering holding hearings featuring Trump’s former fixer. And Trump’s government is chock-full of senior officials who warrant congressional scrutiny, including Wilbur Ross, Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, and Ryan Zinke.
Following the midterms, top Democrats began chatting with each other about which investigations to launch first. Nadler noted that protecting Robert Mueller’s investigation would be at the top of his list, and that this could include an investigation of Trump’s firing of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the appointment of Matthew Whitaker, whom Nadler called a “complete political lackey,” as acting attorney general. Nadler also raised the possibility of examining how the White House interfered in the FBI’s investigation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Cummings said he would not be “handing out subpoenas like somebody’s handing out candy on Halloween.” He remarked that he was interested in examining how to lower drug prices. But he also said he intended to investigate the Trump administration’s decision to put a citizenship question on the upcoming census—a move that could lead to an undercounting of immigrant families. Cummings is also expected to zero in on emoluments clause violations, security clearances, and family separation, and he has pointed to the controversy involving plans to build a new FBI headquarters—Trump is suspected of pressing for the FBI HQ to be rebuilt at its present site, which, while more expensive, would prevent competitors from building a hotel close to the Trump International.
Democrats want to make sure voters see them as working hard on subjects like health care and education, and not just as Inspector Javert obsessively pursuing Trump.
Appearing on a Sunday morning news show, Schiff insisted, “Our strongest purpose here is to put forward a positive agenda. We don’t want that lost in a flurry of investigations.” But he has mentioned potential perjury charges against witnesses suspected of lying to the House intelligence panel during its stunted Russia investigation, and he wants to reopen a probe of Donald Trump Jr.’s involvement in the infamous Trump Tower meeting where he, Kushner, and campaign chairman Paul Manafort met with a Russian emissary supposedly bringing them dirt as part of a Kremlin plot to assist Trump. “There’s still a number of important questions that need answers and that require focused investigation, including determining the full extent of foreign influence and interference in the elections and during the transition,” a Democratic committee aide says.
Intriguingly, Schiff has expressed interest in a possible Trump financial link to the Russians. “No one has investigated the issue of whether the Russians were laundering money through the Trump Organization, and this is the leverage that the Russians have over the president of the United States,” Schiff said in October. A report issued earlier this year by Intelligence Committee Democrats said they wanted to obtain information on the hundreds of millions of dollars in loans Trump has received from Deutsche Bank, which in 2017 was hit with a $630 million fine because of its involvement in a $10 billion Russian money laundering scheme. “Did the Russian government, through business figures close to the Kremlin,” the report asked, “seek to court Donald Trump and launder funds through the Trump Organization; and did candidate Trump’s financial exposure via Deutsche Bank or other private loans constitute a point of leverage that Russia may have exploited and may still be using?”
Maxine Waters has also been pushing to secure information on Trump and Deutsche Bank, both from the Justice Department and from the bank itself. But as merely the ranking member of the Financial Services Committee, she had no ability to force the release of information. Now the congresswoman so often derided by Trump has the ability to issue subpoenas.
And then there are Trump’s income tax returns, which he has steadfastly refused to make public. Under federal law, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee has the power to request anyone’s tax returns, with no vote needed in the House or Senate. How will the White House respond to any of these investigations? Regarding the Mueller probe, Trump once said that any investigation of his family’s finances would be a red line. The day after the midterms, he threatened to adopt a “warlike posture” if Democrats launched investigations of him. He even vowed to counterstrike with Senate scrutiny of House Democrats. A defiant Trump might refuse to recognize the Democrats’ requests and subpoenas—which could lead to courtroom confrontation.
Trump’s strongman posturing has done nothing to stifle Democrats’ investigative plans. But the Democrats do want to make sure voters see them as working hard on subjects like health care and education, and not just as Inspector Javert obsessively pursuing Trump.
Trump, meanwhile, has no desire for such equanimity. Prior to becoming president, he often described his No. 1 rule of business as this: If someone screws you, screw ’em back—10 times worse. Crisis is his natural habitat, and he will have no interest in reasonable resolutions of any of these disputes. Given his volatile nature, he could at any time pull a move that would spur the House Democratic leadership to put aside restraint and consider impeachment.
To a large degree, Trump reached the White House without a thorough vetting. His taxes, his business deals, his overseas connections, and his mob ties received little scrutiny in 2016, and the excesses, conflicts, and scandals of his administration have been mostly ignored by his Republican handmaids on Capitol Hill. Now Democrats have an opportunity to remedy this neglect. Yet the effort to hold Trump accountable will test the workings of our checks-and-balances system and indubitably end up a wild ride—perhaps a constitutional crisis. And it remains to be seen if Trump and his White House can withstand the assault of scrutiny that is coming.
Looking for news you can trust?Subscribe to our free newsletters. Rob Dobi