WASHINGTON – Democrats who will take charge of the House in January are planning an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to investigating whether President Donald Trump is trying to undermine a probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the lawmaker poised to lead a key oversight committee told USA TODAY.
Anticipating subpoenas and multiple investigations, Trump warned on Wednesday that such probes will create a “warlike” atmosphere in Washington and suggested he would retaliate by investigating Democrats.
But Rep. Elijah Cummings, who will lead the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Tuesday’s election results, flipping control of the House, were a mandate from voters to provide a check and balance on the administration.
“They were sending a message that those who do not want to hold this president accountable need to step aside,” the Maryland Democrat told USA TODAY.
Democrats in Tuesday's midterm elections captured control of the House, though Republicans will keep their dominance in the Senate. The new Congress will be sworn in at the beginning of next year.
Cummings and top Democrats on Intelligence and Judiciary committees this week demanded the preservation of documents relevant to the work of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the forced resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions’ firing could threaten Mueller’s investigation into a host of issues, including whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
In letters to administration officials, the leading Democrats wrote that committees are conducting investigations parallel to Mueller’s.
Cummings said such investigations will be orchestrated by the House speaker, and that it will be an “all-hands-on-deck” approach, rather than just his committee.
“This is one of these situations where, if we don’t stand up now, our country, our democracy is in deep peril,” Cummings said.
Thursday night, Cummings participated in one of the nationwide “Nobody is Above the Law” protests, calling for interim Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to recuse himself from overseeing Mueller’s Russia probe. Whitaker has previously opined that the Mueller investigation was going too far.
“Let's understand that this democracy is precious,” Cummings told a crowd in Baltimore. “When we look at what the president is trying to do – attacking the FBI, attacking the CIA, attacking the ethics department, attacking our press – ladies and gentlemen, we’ve got to fight.”
From alleged conflicts of interest to administration scandals, Democrats are looking ahead to a lengthy list of oversight investigations. Cummings said that’s part of Democrats' job, regardless of who is president.
Here are some issues Democrats want to pursue:
Democrats have been calling for the release of Trump’s tax returns since the 2016 presidential campaign.
One of the few members of Congress allowed to request them is the chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, which Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts is in line to lead. Asked this week whether he’ll request the tax returns, he responded, “yeah, I think we will.”
“But I hope that the president would do this on his own, largely because every president since Gerald R. Ford has voluntarily done this,” Neal told reporters.
That’s not likely. During his news conference on Wednesday, Trump said his tax returns were under audit and that “people wouldn’t understand it” because they’re so complex.
If Ways and Means obtains the documents, other committees will be interested. Cummings said he would “love to see them.”
“It would be very helpful in determining whether there are violations,” he said.
Neal said he assumes the request will result in a court case.
Possible conflicts of interest
Democrats are interested in possible violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bars a president from accepting payments from foreign governments without consent from Congress. Among other things, they want to probe the legality of foreign government officials spending money at Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Trump has not divested himself of his ownership interests and assets.
Top Democrats on the Senate and House Judiciary committees and nearly 200 members of Congress sued Trump, alleging he violated the Constitution, and a federal judge in September allowed the case to proceed.
Cummings said Americans deserve to see more information relating to Trump’s pledge to donate profits from foreign governments to the U.S. Treasury.
“If the president is doing things above board, he has nothing to worry about,” he said.
Look for several committees to bite into this borscht.
Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat likely to chair the House Intelligence Committee, said as early as February there’s “ample evidence” the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Just before this election, he said in a statement Democrats need to "fully assess what areas of inquiry in the Russia investigation still require a full accounting."
“There are serious and credible allegations the Russians may possess financial leverage over the president, including perhaps the laundering of Russian money through his businesses,” Schiff wrote in an Oct. 12 op-ed in the Washington Post.
Trump has denied any coordination between his campaign and Russia.
Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat expected to lead the Financial Services Committee, has been seeking records that could show whether Trump, his family members and associates have financial ties to Russia.
And Cummings said it’s only logical that his committee would look into any interference, whether it be from Russia or the United States, with Americans’ right to vote and to have their votes counted.
“I would deem it legislative malpractice if we didn’t,” he said.
Senior administration officials
Cummings said he wants to examine the administration’s security clearance process after former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former White House staff secretary Rob Porter and Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner were able to see “highly secret” documents when “it’s at best questionable as to whether or not they had the appropriate clearances.”
Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI, Porter resigned amid allegations of domestic abuse and Kushner’s conduct is under scrutiny as part of the Russia investigation.
Cummings’ committee and likely others will want to look into multiple scandals involving senior Trump administration officials, including former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who resigned in July amid revelations about his pricey travel habits, use of staff for personal tasks and interactions with lobbyists.
Cummings said he’s interested, not in punishing Pruitt, but in how he was able to do all the things he did.
“It seems that every two or three weeks there was a new violation and yet he remained there,” he said.