Taking control of the House of Representatives will give Democrats a gold mine worth of opportunities to investigate the ethically challenged administration of President Donald Trump. That’s a potential nightmare for the White House but also a political minefield for the winners.
There will be probes into the president's financial dealings, more on his connections to Russia, inspections of the questionable policies and practices of some Cabinet members, and, says the next Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, "a deep dive" into ties between the US and Saudi Arabia.
"We're going to do our job; they may think that's a nightmare," said Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who will become chair of the House Oversight Committee — a body that showed no appetite for oversight under Republicans for the last two years. Cummings said in an interview that Democrats would be "careful, methodical and transparent."
He and other Democrats understand the pitfalls of overreach following the Republicans’ partisan excesses during the presidency of Barack Obama. "We can't look like Torquemada," said Representative Gerald Connally of Virginia, an Oversight Committee member, referring to the grand inquisitor of 15th-century Spain. That's even more true given the Democrats’ slender new House majority and the Republicans’ added strength in the Senate.
The Democrats’ investigative course depends in part on the actions of Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking at connections between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign. If he brings charges in the next couple of months against Trump operatives, Democrats are likely to narrow the scope of their congressional inquiries. If the president tries to sabotage Muller, for example through a new and hostile attorney general, there will be a concerted effort by congressional Democrats to publicly reveal whatever Trump tries to hide.
Whether the new Democratic House chooses experience or fresh faces for its leadership will be an important factor in guiding and restraining the inquiries. Strong direction will be needed to set priorities and to prevent opportunistic committee and subcommittee chairmen from seeking daily headlines.
That argues for keeping Nancy Pelosi in the speaker’s chair. She was effectively demonized by Republicans during the campaign as a symbol of coastal elitism, and now there are a handful of new Democratic representatives who will arrive in Washington committed to voting against her. But no alternative to the California lawmaker is as skillful, tough or more persuasive to left-wingers who will be impatient for action on pet measures like abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency or impeachment of Trump. A compromise may be for Pelosi to make a two-year leadership pledge, move younger members to top spots and let others be the party’s public face.
Democrats will need savvy leaders to prevent cheap shots like improper leaks of Trump's tax returns. It would also be counterproductive for committees to spend time looking backward at controversies like the ethics scandals that forced out former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, or at whether Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh told the truth during his confirmation hearings. Those are yesterday’s issues. And it would be stupid for Democrats to let themselves be baited by Trump's demagoguery; he's more effective in the gutter than his critics.
Trump will be ready to mount a counterattack accusing Democrats of behaving like partisan attack dogs; he loves to play victim of witch hunts. There are sensitive issues that will require careful consideration. For example, Congress may have the authority to get Trump's tax returns — the president has repeatedly reneged on a promise to release them — but perhaps not to present them to the public.
There are three key committees: the Oversight panel headed by Cummings; the Intelligence Committee led by Schiff, a southern Californian, and the Judiciary Committee to be headed by Jerrold Nadler of New York.
Cummings said he wants Democrats to make sure that the 2020 census, conducted by the Commerce Department, is not being manipulated for political reasons.
But much of his oversight panel's work will focus on potential conflicts of interest involving Trump and his family.
"The focus should be on issues that show Trump and gang stealing from all of us to benefit themselves," said Norman Eisen, who directs an ethics watchdog group, was the top ethics official on the staff of President Barack Obama and retains close ties to party leaders. He wants Congress to look into potential violations of the emoluments clause of the US Constitution, which forbids a president from taking payments from a foreign government. Trump has remained in control of family businesses that have foreign officials as customers, notably the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Eisen said that he’d also like to see probes of administration decisions that affect the Trump Organization's business interests and those of Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The Intelligence Committee had long cultivated a tradition of bipartisanship until its Republican chairman, Devin Nunes of California, and his ally Trey Gowdy of South Carolina used it to run interference for Trump in White House dealings with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They also alienated many intelligence professionals, a rift Schiff has vowed to repair.
He and most Democrats on the panel believe there are crucial questions that Republicans ignored. Was candidate Trump involved in a June, 2016 meeting between a Russian lawyer offering dirt on Democrats and Trump's son, son-in-law and campaign chairman? Was Russian money funneled into the Republican campaign through the National Rifle Association? Did Russian businesspeople bail out a financially troubled citizen Trump with Florida real estate deals? Did Trump allies including Roger Stone tell the truth in testimony they gave in congressional proceedings?
Schiff’s look at Saudi Arabia would probably explore any role that Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman may have played in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Saudi critic, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last month.
If Democratic firebrands succeed in the effort to push forward an impeachment inquiry, the Judiciary Committee would be the venue. Most party leaders have argued for a go-slow approach, at least until the special counsel's probe is completed. There are more productive potential investigative avenues for the judiciary panel, like the politicization of the Justice Department and actions intended to suppress turnout of poor and minority voters who generally favor Democrats.
The Judiciary Committee is one of the most sharply divided ideologically, with the Democrats dominated by their left wing and Republicans by their right.