Can Democrats win back a majority in the House in 2018?
Republicans who support President Donald Trump have grown fearful that the White House is unprepared for the onslaught that may await them in January.
If a “blue wave” succeeds in giving the Democrats control at least of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections in November, Democrats will have the power to subpoena documents and force administration officials to testify about a slew of scandals, including aides using private email for government business, agencies spending taxpayer money at Trump resorts and sexual assault allegations involving his recent Supreme Court appointment, Brett Kavanaugh.
Five Republicans with close ties to the White House said that instead of preparing for what could be a years-long attack by a newly emboldened Democratic-run Congress, Trump aides are wasting time trying to respond to non-stop controversies, Trump tweets and the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Most spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“You have take it seriously. It’s going to be all-out warfare,” said Scott Jennings, who was subpoenaed by the Senate when he worked for Republican George W. Bush and the Democrats took control of Congress. “It grinds the administration to a halt.”
The White House should be hiring more staff to handle the congressional inquiries, advising administration officials to retain their own attorneys and researching potential areas of vulnerabilities, ranging from the death of four U.S. soldiers in Africa to the sluggish response to Hurricane Maria, according to people who worked for Presidents Bill Clinton, Bush and Barack Obama, all presidents who faced an opposition-party Congress after their midterm elections.
And the White House should warn individual agencies — which have engaged in lavish spending and contentious policies, such as separating immigrant children from their parents — to do the same.
The White House would not respond to an inquiry about how many staff it had working in the White House counsel’s office, in the press operation or in legislative affairs.
“It’s the beginning of a nightmare,” said a former Trump adviser who remains close to the White House and is familiar with the process. “The harassment, the hearings, the requests.”
One investigation will lead to another — and another, thrusting Trump into a new phase of his presidency. He will no longer be able to govern. He will just have to try to survive, according to the aides to former presidents.
That’s why Republicans had urged Trump to tap Emmet Flood, who served as Bush’s lead lawyer in responding to congressional investigations, as White House counsel after Don McGahn leaves. Flood, who returned to the White House in the spring to represent Trump in the Russia inquiry, would have been likely to attract other much-needed lawyers.
“They are having trouble getting lawyers in because Trump shoots his mouth off and expects personal loyalty,” said Richard Painter, who worked in Bush’s White House counsel’s office and ran unsuccessfully for Senate as a Democrat this year. “He’s an impossible client.”
But Trump may have taken the advice of others who wanted Flood to remain focused on the Russia investigation when he picked Washington lawyer Pat Cipollone, who worked in the Bush Justice Department, to replace McGahn.
As the midterm elections loom, the White House is short-staffed and unprepared.
The White House counsel’s office, which traditionally takes the lead role in responding to congressional inquires, is largely preoccupied with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump aides helped Russia interfere in the 2016 campaign. The White House Office of Legislative Affairs, which just got a new director, has been largely focused on the Senate confirmation for Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. And the depleted White House communications staff, which includes a research team, is largely spending its time fact-checking Trump’s statements and then finding a way to explain what he said.
“From a communications perspective, the White House is completely unprepared for the onslaught it will face if the House flips,” a former official in the Trump White House said. “Democrats are lining up potential investigations by the dozens and the communications shop in the White House is a ghost town.. Democrats will get free hit after free hit. There’s no rapid response operation — nothing.”
A second former Trump adviser said simply the White House is only able to “focus on one thing at time.”
Republicans on Capitol Hill have largely protected the Trump White House from serious investigations, which is not unusual when the White House and Congress are controlled by the same party.
But Republicans are fighting to hold on to their majorities in Congress in the midterm elections when the president’s party traditionally loses ground. Democrats need to pick up a net of 23 seats in the House — which polls show they are likely to get — and two in the Senate, which is less likely, to gain control of both chambers.
In the nation’s capital, political strategists talk endlessly about whether Democrats — if they win control of Congress — will try to impeach Trump to pursue the possibility of removing him from office. But less attention has been paid to the much likelier outcome — the investigations — which is the one thing Democrats can agree on.
Democrats want to investigate the firing of FBI Director James Comey, whether aides handling the nation’s secrets have the appropriate security clearances and the decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. They want to look further into whether Trump aides helped Russia interfere in the 2016 campaign, including what role, if any, the NRA played. And they want to examine Trump’s tax returns and study whether he is violating the Constitution by doing business with foreign governments.
“All of those things have to be on the table,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has criticized Republicans for failing to subpoena documents from the White House in dozens of inquiries when the White House has failed to comply.
“The waste, fraud, and abuse is plain to see,” Cummings said, “and the most important thing for the Oversight Committee to do is to use its authority to obtain documents and witnesses, and actually hold the Trump administration accountable to the American people.”
But it won’t just be the House and Senate oversight committees. Every House and Senate committee is likely to launch a probe into one issue or another. They may even form a special committee, such as Republicans did after four Americans were killed in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya in 2012.
“You don’t know what to do. You don’t know what to say,” said a White House lawyer who worked for Obama when Republicans had majorities in Congress. “Every day is a new crisis.”
Most staffers in the Trump White House have never worked for government before and don’t know what to expect, the Republicans close to the White House say.
“I don’t think they have any sense of what they are in for,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who worked in the Obama and Clinton White Houses. “They have had zero taste of what it’s like to live with a Congress that’s doing an adequate amount of oversight.”
In addition to hiring more staff, Palmieri said the administration should begin separating those that will work on congressional inquiries so the entire White House doesn’t get consumed by oversight.
“It’s a very tumultuous time in the White House,” Palmieri said. “People get really scared and can turn on each other.”
In 2011, Obama hired Eric Schultz, a former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman, to head up the press response to investigations launched by Rep. Darrell Issa of California, then chairman of the House Oversight Committee. His office was located away from the rest of the press staff.
“What they can do now is learn from recent history,” Jennings said.
Lesley Clark contributed.