Democrats taking control of the House Thursday have been waiting two years for this: getting their hands on Donald Trump’s tax returns, investigating whether his businesses are improperly benefiting from his presidency and taking a deep look at the policy that separated migrant children from their parents.
Some lawmakers and much of the Democratic base would like party leaders to open impeachment proceedings against President Trump without delay.
But that’s unlikely to happen, as top Democrats are more inclined to pursue investigations that are deliberate and dispassionate, says Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Virginia.
“For it to have credibility and to stick, it’s got to be methodical and fact-based,” Connolly said. “It can’t just be about emotion, and that’s a balancing act we’re going to have to figure out here.”
Democrats will first have to figure out a way to work with Republicans and the White House to reopen parts of the government that have been shuttered since Dec. 22. The party’s leaders insist that won’t distract them from their watchdog mission.
The tone of what’s to come was set by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, at a December hearing.
“As we move into the next Congress, I want to put you and the department on notice: The time for accountability has arrived,” he told Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Connolly argued that to be successful, Democrats need to proceed methodically and ultimately look to influence the voters who support Trump.
“We’re aware of the fact that President Trump has about 40 percent in the country who passionately support him and if you’re going to examine illegal or unethical actions by the president, you’ve got to try to bring them along,” Connolly said. “You can’t just ignore them or dismiss them.”
Connolly suggested a Watergate comparison is instructive.
Former President Richard Nixon won re-election by a landslide in 1972 but resigned less than two years later. Widely televised Senate hearings into misconduct at the White House in 1973 began to erode his credibility. So did a series of independent counsel investigations and court proceedings, and by summer of 1974 some Republican lawmakers began to support impeachment.
One indication of just how much of the Trump administration Democrats want to put under the microscope came recently when Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, the incoming chairman of the House’s chief government watchdog panel, fired off more than 50 letters to the White House, federal agencies, Trump’s attorneys and the Trump Organization, demanding documents.
The demands may represent a fraction of information Democrats will eventually seek. Cummings wants material that’s never been produced, though it was requested in some cases more than a year ago by the Republican-led House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“These are documents that even the Republicans on the Oversight Committee — at least at some point in time — believed we needed to conduct effective oversight,” said Cummings. “As Democrats prepare to take the reins in Congress, we are insisting — as a basic first step — that the Trump administration and others comply with these Republican requests.”
Cummings will have an important new tool in 2019 — the subpoena power he will gain when he takes the gavel.
Among his lines of inquiry: the administration’s family separation policy, its procedures for White House security clearances and Cabinet members’ travel habits.
Cummings has accused the administration of failing to put in place procedures to reunite immigrant families. He’s also criticized the administration for pulling security clearances from some of its critics. He plans to continue a Republican investigation into security clearances in the executive branch.
One of his concerns involves reports that former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter was able to work in the West Wing despite being denied a permanent security clearance due to domestic abuse allegations.
Other incoming Democratic chairs pledged greater scrutiny as well. Rep. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey, the incoming chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, vowed “robust oversight of the Trump administration’s ongoing actions to sabotage our healthcare system, exacerbate climate change and weaken consumer protections.”
Likely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House Ways and Means Committee would “take the first steps” toward obtaining Trump’s tax records. The House plans to vote on the next speaker Thursday.
“There is popular demand for the Congress to request the president’s tax returns,” Pelosi, a California Democrat, told reporters.
Since Trump took office, Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-New Jersey, has pressed for the release of Trump’s tax returns. He’s asked the chairman of the Ways and Means committee to invoke Section 6103 of the tax code to obtain the paperwork.
That section of the Internal Revenue Code permits the chairmen of three congressional committees — the House Committee on Ways and Means, the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation — to obtain otherwise private tax information from the IRS.
Pascrell maintains that the records would give congressional investigators the ability to determine whether Trump’s business interests trigger any conflicts of interest. Democrats already charge that Trump is violating the Constitution by accepting gifts from foreign and state governments who book rooms and events at his Washington hotel.
Recent developments with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign and a federal investigation into wrongdoing by Trump’s former lawyer could also join the Democrats’ investigative docket.
Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was sentenced recently to three years in prison for crimes that included arranging payments during the 2016 election to women who claimed affairs with Trump.
“It’s hard to say where we will be by the time we get in session, but clearly the prosecutors have put forth information that proves the president committed criminal acts and nobody is above the law,” Cummings said.
Democrats’ first priority will be to protect Mueller’s investigation.
House Republican leadership in September blocked legislation aimed at protecting the special counsel by requiring that he could only be removed “for misconduct, dereliction of duty, incapacity, conflict of interest, or other good cause, including violation of policies of the Department of Justice.”
Even if the House revived the legislation, it would be unlikely to go anywhere in the Republican-led Senate. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has resisted efforts to consider a similar provision, arguing that Trump would not sign it and that he’s confident that Trump won’t remove Mueller.
While Democrats could somewhat easily proceed with investigations, they could have a rough time getting far with legislation. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, expanded his 2019 majority by two seats, securing a 53-47 majority.
Democrats still see openings. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, said he expects House Democrats to occasionally send over legislation that could put his fellow Kentucky lawmakers, all of whom are Republicans, in an uncomfortable spot.
“If we pass a universal [gun purchase] background check bill, which has 90 percent support across the country, what’s Mitch going to do?” Yarmuth said. “Is he going to keep it off the floor?”
Democrats say their first bill will include an overhaul of campaign finance, voting and ethics laws, including disclosure of presidential tax returns.
A sign of Democrats’ serious interest in investigations: Pelosi last week named Douglas Letter, a 40-year veteran of the U.S. Department of Justice, as the House general counsel.
Pelosi insisted there is potential for compromise.
“What we are interested in is meeting the needs of America’s working families,” she said, citing efforts to reduce the cost of prescription drugs and fund an infrastructure package.
“Both of those things are things that the president said he wanted to do during the campaign so this is common ground,” she said.
Yet even that is likely to be complicated. As Democrats vowed to block spending for Trump’s proposed wall at the border, Trump tweeted that he wouldn’t sign “any of their legislation, including infrastructure, unless it has perfect Border Security. U.S.A. WINS!”
Pelosi questioned whether Trump would actually “throw a tantrum” if presented with the Democratic proposal, noting that she’s had positive talks with Trump about putting money into crumbling roads and bridges.
“It’s something the country wants very much,” she said, adding, “It’s something he promised in the campaign. So if he’s keeping campaign promises to the letter, he probably would want to get to work on an infrastructure bill.”