Democrats who surged to power in the House are salivating over subpoena power and a long menu of potential investigations to cudgel President Donald Trump and his administration.
But anticipation of a blue wave of subpoenas is about to meet reality: it could be months before Democrats launch their most high-profile investigations, and even longer before they get results.
Story Continued Below
“One of the misimpressions is that things start as soon as the election is over,” a senior Democratic official familiar with Democratic leaders’ oversight plans. “That’s not how it works.”
That’s sure to be a point of contention for a Democratic base hungry to put Trump and his administration under a microscope after two years of accusing Republicans of shirking their responsibility to hold the president accountable.
House staffers and veterans of previous oversight investigations warn that staffing up the committees — the spoils of a Democratic House takeover — will be a long and arduous process. And that’s just one challenge.
If Nancy Pelosi cements her place as the next House speaker, she’ll need to work with colleagues to parcel out coveted backbench committee slots to her significantly expanded caucus. The committees will need to fight for their share of a limited congressional budget, and they’ll have to prioritize the timing of their highest-profile investigations to ensure they don’t drown each other out.
Some leadership staffers would prefer to see committee chairmen, for example, spend weeks building a public case to force Trump’s tax returns into the open or subpoena records from his business. Add to that the uncertain timing of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation — a sprawling probe that could ensnare Trump or his allies in allegations of wrongdoing — and Democrats may be doing more waiting than investigating when they take control of the House on Jan. 3.
Trump, too, seems to be girding for the clash, warning Democrats on Wednesday morning that any attempt to investigate him would be met with retaliation.
“If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level, then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else, at the Senate level,” the president wrote on Twitter, providing no evidence that such leaks occurred. “Two can play that game!”
He followed up with that theme during a Wednesday afternoon press conference, where he told reporters that he would refuse to entertain bipartisan legislative efforts if Democrats pursue investigations of him and his administration.
But the reality is, the political environment that Democrats faced the day after they surged back into power on Election Day could be dramatically different when the next Congress begins just days after the new year.
For example, Mueller may be readying to release elements of his findings about whether Trump associates conspired with Russians to influence the 2016 election. House Republicans may use the next few weeks before they hand over their gavels to force more testimony about whether possible anti-Trump bias in the FBI drove its decision to pursue the Russia collusion allegations in 2016 — an effort Democrats say is being used to undermine Mueller and protect Trump. And Trump may make dramatic changes to the leadership of the Justice Department in a matter of days — including the potential removal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who Trump has clashed with over their stewardship of Mueller’s probe.
Asked about Trump’s threat, Pelosi said Democratic investigations would be well organized, focused on uniting the country and based on the House’s “constitutional responsibility for oversight.”
“I don’t think we’ll have any scattershot freelancing on this,” she said.
She added that she’s going to leave efforts to obtain the president’s tax returns up to the various committees who might pursue them.
Appearing early Wednesday morning on MSNBC, incoming House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said his plans to re-open his panel’s shuttered Russia probe depends in no small part on what happens over the next two months during the lame-duck Congress.
“We’ll have to see what Bob Mueller has been able to do and what Bob Mueller has been able to say either via indictment or via report and that will also guide what we intend to do in our committee,” the California Democrat said.
In a divided Congress with little hope for bipartisan legislative action, Democrat-led investigations may indeed be the most significant area of activity.
House Judiciary Committee Democrats wants to probe potential conflicts of interest between the president’s business interests and his decisions since moving into the White House in January 2017. They’re also interested in Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen’s admissions in an August guilty plea to making hush payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey.
Schiff’s House Intelligence Committee has a list of about 70 people, organizations and companies who Democrats say the GOP failed to adequately examine. They’re also eyeing allegations of money laundering between the Trump Organization and foreign interests.
Over at the House Oversight Committee, which historically has the largest investigative staff and the broadest investigative portfolio, Democrats have compiled a laundry list of potential inquiries, from the handling of White House security clearances to the use of private email by White House officials to the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. In late September, the panel’s Democrats tabulated they had made 64 motions for subpoenas from the minority during the Trump era that the GOP denied.
Several committees have also signaled they want to see Trump’s tax returns for evidence of potential conflicts of interest or thorny financial entanglements.
Brian Smith, a former Bill Clinton White House attorney who handled congressional oversight responsibilities, said that Democrats aren’t sitting around waiting for the formal transfer of power with the new Congress. “I don’t think Democrats are going to waste any time, frankly,” he said. “They’re getting ready.”
Trump has yet to fortify his administration’s staff to deal with a Democratic oversight onslaught. Scores of hires are expected, for example, in the White House counsel’s office once Pat Cipollone has finished his background security check and gets on the job full-time.
Still, the president and his advisers have already signaled plans to fight the Democratic committees on nearly every front, setting up potentially lengthy fights on accessing documents the committees may need to conduct their oversight. Attempts to issue subpoenas for those documents will likely wind up getting resolved in court.
“If they want war, believe me they’ll have no trouble getting war from this guy,” said Joe diGenova, an informal Trump adviser who nearly joined the president’s personal legal team earlier this year. “If they want to issue subpoenas, every single one of them will be litigated all the way to the Supreme Court just in time for the next presidential election.”
The last time Democrats swept into power — in 2007 — it took the incoming House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry Waxman a month before he held his first hearing, a look at allegations the George W. Bush administration was suppressing government research into climate change science. Waxman then held a series of hearings framed around waste, fraud and abuse in the Iraq reconstruction efforts, Coast Guard fleets and DHS border security and whether pharmaceutical companies were overcharging for prescription drugs.
Mindful of the Waxman example, senior Democratic staffers say they have been thinking through a strategy to stretch out their investigative work over several months, careful not to draw conclusions right away. It’s an attempt to counteract Republicans who are already guaranteeing that Democratic overreach will backfire.
“The whole issue of presidential harassment is interesting. I remember when we tried it in the late 90s. We impeached President Clinton, his numbers went up and ours went down and we underperformed in the next election,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “So the Democrats in the House have to decide just how much presidential harassment is good strategy. I’m not so sure it will work for them.”
Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who’s vying to become the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, made clear that this would be his line of attack as well.
“We’re here to remind Mr. Nadler that a House majority doesn’t give liberals license to chase political vendettas at deep cost — and no benefit,” he said.
In an interview before the midterms, Waxman said he’d been having “very informal” discussions himself with the House Democratic leaders about oversight. He said his message has been: “Investigations and oversight must be done in a responsible way, otherwise they’re not going to be credible.”
Two of Waxman’s top former committee staffers — Phil Barnett and Phil Schiliro, who served also as Obama White House legislative director in the first term — have also been informally advising their former Democratic colleagues too.
Democratic aides note that there will be some low-hanging fruit for investigators to pursue quickly.
For example, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the current ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee, has already produced documents suggesting a White House role in decisions surrounding a new FBI headquarters. Cummings also launched an inquiry into former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s efforts to pursue a nuclear power deal in the Middle East, in part by partnering with Russia. Those well-developed inquiries could be easier to build-upon than to start from scratch.
One challenge that Cummings will face though is the dramatic increase in his committee’s investigative staff. The majority gets a staff of 80 investigators, double the number of those in the minority.
Kurt Bardella, a former aide to Rep. Darrell Issa, who chaired the Oversight Committee from 2011 to 2015, noted the strategic significance behind elevating some members to chair subcommittees and take on prominent roles — they’ll be helming high-profile investigations with political consequences and need to be able to explain their probes on TV and in public hearings.
He also said it’s difficult to boost staff in the given timeframe.
“It is an incredible lift to hire this many people in such a short window of time,” said Bardella. “This was one of the areas that we really underestimated back in 2010 in terms of how much of a time suck it was to interview/hire another 40 people on top of the 40 we already had.”
Burgess Everett contributed reporting.