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With control of the U.S. House, Democrats have real power to investigate the Trump administration. But where should they start?

MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Rep. Dean Phillips said that special counsel Robert Mueller should complete his investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia before Democrats do anything oversight-related.
Even with control of the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats won’t be sending a lot of legislation to the White House. But they can use their power to send other things to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: subpoenas, letters requesting documents, and invitations to officials to get grilled before Democratic-controlled committees.

For two years, Democrats, and their base of supporters, have craved the chance to conduct rigorous oversight of President Donald Trump and his administration. Thanks to the 2018 midterm, they now have it — but figuring out how to put that authority to use is no easy task.

With potential topics of investigation into Trump administration actions numbering in the dozens — as many as 85, by one estimate — Democrats have to make choices about what to prioritize.

Should they come out of the gate with an investigative salvo into the Trump campaign’s alleged hush money payments to Stormy Daniels in 2016? What about looking into how much Trump’s businesses are benefiting from his presidency? The administration’s response to the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico? Its botched ban on transgender Americans serving in the military?

The list goes on and on, and Democrats aren’t exactly united on how best to proceed — both in terms of what to tackle first, and where oversight fits into the broader Democratic to-do list. Some incoming centrist first-term members favor a “legislation, not investigation” approach that would position Democrats as a responsible governing party, not one of knee-jerk resistance to Trump.

Other Democrats are coming into the majority promising an all-out investigative war on Trump, and they’re not shy about amplifying the biggest hope of the party’s hardcore progressive base: impeaching the president. (One Michigan congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib, called for impeachment more colorfully earlier this month, solidifying her status as a “Resistance” hero.)

President Trump and his allies, meanwhile, are already framing Democrats’ oversight efforts as symptomatic of “Trump derangement syndrome,” underscoring how Democrats’ every move will be linked to the all-important 2020 election.

From Russia, to love of investigating emoluments

MinnPost reached out to several Democratic House members to ask what their top oversight priority is in the new Congress.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Rep. Ilhan Omar
The answer of Rep. Dean Phillips, freshman of Minnesota’s 3rd District, was, in a word, caution: he said that special counsel Robert Mueller should complete his investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia before Democrats do anything oversight-related.

“Almost singular related to oversight is ensuring the Mueller investigation continues and can conclude, and its findings presented to the House, before we take any additional action,” Phillips said. “That is my foremost priority, and I think that’s how we collectively as a party should be handling the circumstances.”

In a recent appearance on MSNBC, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota’s 5th District gave a similar answer. “We have to really do our due diligence. So it is important for us to look into what [the Mueller] investigation produces and make sure that we are really caring for the health and the well-being of this nation,” she said.

“There has been incredible evidence that this president has made attempts to obstruct the Russia investigation,” Omar asserted. “I am excited about the opportunity of having the Democrats in the majority — for them to have the opportunity to investigate the executive branch and make sure that we are following this new development and taking action.”

Rep. Angie Craig, from the 2nd Congressional District — one of two districts in Minnesota that Trump won in 2016 and is now held by a Democrat — did not mention the president specifically when she outlined her oversight priorities.

Craig said in a statement that lawmakers “need to make sure that government is working for people… that includes holding the administration accountable where appropriate — whether that’s through the bill I’m cosponsoring to reform our campaign finance system and protect our voting rights or making sure our health care laws are preserved, protected and improved.”

Rep. Angie Craig
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Rep. Angie Craig
Minnesota’s freshman Democrats have yet to receive their committee assignments, which will affect their roles in directly checking the Trump White House. Most committees have some authority to probe administration activities, but three House committees are at the center of the oversight agenda. The new chair of the Intelligence Committee, California Rep. Adam Schiff, is vowing aggressive oversight of the U.S. intelligence community and the Mueller investigation. The Judiciary Committee has some jurisdiction over the probe as well, but it has a unique oversight role: it is the only committee in Congress that can begin impeachment proceedings.

But the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, chaired by Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, has the most expansive authority and jurisdiction to conduct oversight: “We could look at anything,” Cummings said in a recent appearance on “60 Minutes.” The committee has already sent 51 letters to the administration requesting documents related to a range of inquiries, from the handling of contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, to Cabinet secretaries’ use of taxpayer money to fund their professional and personal travel.

These document-request letters are likely to be followed by subpoenas, and by high-profile hearings featuring administration officials and other notables. In February, the Oversight panel will hear testimony from Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer who has implicated the president in illegal activity.

‘Presidential harassment’

While Democrats’ 40-seat gain in the House was partly fueled by voter desire to see a check on Trump in the form of increased oversight, there are plenty of Democrats — in both the party’s right and left flanks — who do not necessarily want oversight to become the majority’s focus.

In December, 46 Democratic representatives-elect — including Phillips and Craig — sent a letter to party leadership signaling that freshmen wanted to focus on legislation, not investigation. “While we have a duty to exercise oversight over the executive branch,” the letter read, “particularly when the administration crosses legal lines or contravenes American values, we must prioritize action on topics such as the cost of health care, our crumbling infrastructure, immigration, gun safety, the environment, and criminal justice reform.”

The group of Democrats on that letter were mostly centrist. But their counterparts on the party’s progressive wing, like Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have largely focused on using their platforms to amplify progressive policy ideas like a Green New Deal and single-payer health care.

According to Jim Cottrill, a political science professor at St. Cloud State University, this is not a bad strategy for the newcomers. “It’s clear this new generation of Democrats really wants to make a name for themselves in doing policy,” he told MinnPost. “It gives them focus, something to pin their hat on, to say we’re for something, not against something.”

Progressive activists, meanwhile, are watching closely to see how House Democrats proceed: they organized for a “blue wave” for many reasons, but a top one was to force some robust oversight of Trump.

The new reality in Washington is exciting to activists like Anita Smithson, a spokesperson for the progressive organizing group Indivisible in Minnesota’s 3rd District. But it’s also daunting: “It’s like drinking from a firehose,” Smithson said, as she described avenues of investigation from digging into Trump’s handling of Hurricane Maria to compelling the release of the president’s tax returns via the Ways and Means Committee, an act that Smithson said was at the top of her wish list for Democrats.

But Smithson also said she worries about so-called “Resistance fatigue” and the prospect that a raft of investigations from Capitol Hill will overwhelm not just Republicans but Democrats over the next two years. “I think we do run a real risk of, how can we effectively provide oversight on so many things, because we only have so many people and so many hours in a day.”

She said that activists in Indivisible were relying on the people they helped elect to be “weathervanes” and trust their instincts on key oversight decisions. “I see our role in Indivisible MN-03 to help build support so the Democrats can have the political courage to do some of these investigations,” she says.

Some political courage will be required, because no matter what Democrats decide to do, Trump and the GOP are poised to push back on their oversight efforts with full force. That’s already gotten started: speaking from the Oval Office on Christmas Eve, Trump took a swipe at the plans the incoming majority was making, and solidified a catchphrase he’s likely to turn to often over the next two years. “It’s probably presidential harassment and we know how to handle that,” he said. “I know how to handle that better than anybody.”

On Capitol Hill, key GOP figures on oversight matters are staunch Trump allies: Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a ringleader of the GOP’s investigation into the Benghazi attacks, will be the top Republican on the Oversight and Government Reform panel. Jordan is a frequent defender of Trump on cable news and has called the Mueller probe a “witch hunt,” borrowing Trump’s language.

Exactly how this battle plays out on Capitol Hill has big implications for the 2020 election: if Democrats are ultimately seen as going too far in their oversight duties, it could be a benefit to Trump. At the same time, Democrats could wield their power in a way that exposes damaging information about the administration to the benefit of Democrats — possibly by focusing on corruption.

St. Cloud State’s Cottrill predicted that Democrats will, on the whole, take a cautious approach. “Their strategy is not going to be predicated on attacking Trump but being viewed as the party of functional government,” he said. “They don’t want to be seen as the party of Trump derangement syndrome.”

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/15/2019 - 10:21 am.

    Trump has been the most harassed and investigated and received the most negative press coverage President in US history. To this day, not a single crime has been found nor any wrongdoing. The whole campaign finance issue isn’t an issue as he has a long history of paying people to keep quiet.

    This entire mess is just political nonsense because Hillary lost. What will the Democrats (and left) do when Mueller announces no crimes committed by Trump??? Even Alan Dershowitz says there won’t be any criminal findings.

    • Submitted by James Miller on 01/15/2019 - 11:53 am.

      It’s not just “political nonsense because Hillary lost” at all. It’s important because Trump has a long history of lying about his activities. Why doesn’t this concern you Bob?

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/15/2019 - 12:52 pm.

        Because no crime has been committed. You wailed to no end when the GOP said anything bad about Obama. Why doesn’t Trump get even a tiny amount of the same respect/response? Trump has been under investigation before he even won.

        The funny part is he was a Democrat for many years before he ran. I don’t support him at all (mainly because he dropped his most important promises the day he was elected). But this has been the biggest witch hunt in US history.

      • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 01/15/2019 - 12:56 pm.

        I think it’s pretty obvious to everyone, including the people who voted for Trump, that he is pretty loose with the facts. Whether he intentionally says things that he knows are not true or whether he actually believes some of the things he says that are questionable, is something that no amount of investigation is going to be able to conclusively determine.

        The bottom line is that the average American knows what kind of guy Trump is. We don’t need any more investigations to illuminate us. What we need is a government (particularly a Congress) that gets off of its butt and gets to work to solve the country’s problems. The first step is to actually pass budgets and appropriations on time and put an end the this shutdown nonsense.

        A good first step would be to pass legislation that in the event of any government shutdown of any type, no matter how trivial, automatically all of the leadership and staff of Congress and the White House would quit getting paid. No more holding TSA agents and Air Traffic Controllers hostage to the BS that is currently going on in Washington.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 01/15/2019 - 12:15 pm.

      Is Dershowitz part of the Mueller team? No? The fact is that no one knows what Mueller has found. There’s been no leaks from his camp. What will the right do if/when there are crimes uncovered? My guess is they’ll shrug and say they don’t care.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/15/2019 - 03:02 pm.

        ABC has apparently already leaked findings of Mueller’s investigation. Nothing that big would ever stay a secret given the animosity many have towards Trump.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/15/2019 - 03:45 pm.

          A representative of ABC News–which on any other day of the year would be left-leaning and liberally biased beyond redemption–is quoting unnamed members of Mueller’s staff as saying there is no “bombshell.”

          That isn’t exactly what I would call a “leak.”

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/15/2019 - 12:20 pm.

      “Trump has been the most harassed and investigated and received the most negative press coverage President in US history.” Were you alive during the Clinton administration?

      “The whole campaign finance issue isn’t an issue as he has a long history of paying people to keep quiet.” Paying hush money to porn stars is not illegal. Doing it with campaign funds, or intending to help a candidate for office takes it out of the realm of ordinary bribery and puts it into the realm of campaign finance.

      The fact that he has “a long history of paying people to keep quiet” should, by itself, speak volumes about the amorality of the man.

      • Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/15/2019 - 03:09 pm.

        Clinton committed an actual crime (lying about his affair). There was nothing back then like what Trump has faced. Mainly because most of the media leans to the left so they cover things up that involve Democrats.

        There is no evidence Trump used campaign funds. Many rich and famous people have NDAs with people for various reasons. You don’t complain about them paying off mistresses etc to keep quiet. His history of doing so proves it was not related to trying to win the election.

        His personal life is not of my concern. Where were you when 20+ women accused Bill Clinton of rape? Where was your moral outrage over him being President with that on his head? If you only want moral people in office, you’d have to toss most of Congress and many in the State Legislature out of office and start over.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/15/2019 - 03:29 pm.

          Let’s also remember that Trump has not been investigated by Congress. He has been investigated by various state Attorneys General, which led to the end of the Trump Foundation and Trump University. Republicans in Congress have decided that they are not a co-equal branch of government, charged in part with acting as a check on executive power.

          “Clinton committed an actual crime (lying about his affair).” Clinton was acquitted in the Senate.

          “There was nothing back then like what Trump has faced.” Except for Travelgate, Whitewater, Mena Airport, and the Vince Foster Danse Macabre. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, but those were actual investigation.

          “Mainly because most of the media leans to the left so they cover things up that involve Democrats.” If they cover them up, how do we know about them? Seriously, did you type that with a straight face?

          “There is no evidence Trump used campaign funds.” If an expenditure was made to benefit a candidate’s campaign, it may count as a campaign contribution, thus bringing into play the campaign finance laws. Try to keep up.

          “Many rich and famous people have NDAs with people for various reasons.” The main reason being they have something to hide. You don’t pay off people to keep your contributions to the Red Cross secret.

          “You don’t complain about them paying off mistresses etc to keep quiet.” Because they aren’t the President of the United States, or people working on his behalf.

          “His history of doing so proves it was not related to trying to win the election.” Worst defense ever: “He’s been paying off his sidepieces for years, so that means it had nothing to do with the election.” Yes, that one fails on so many levels.

    • Submitted by Kent Fralish on 01/15/2019 - 01:03 pm.

      “Trump derangement syndrome,”

    • Submitted by Jim Bernstein on 01/15/2019 - 01:34 pm.

      Reporting what Mr. Trump says or does is not “negative press coverage”. Foolish name calling and making up stuff that is verifiably not true while being ill-mannered, unprepared, and obtuse generates press coverage because it is news. I am always curious to hear what constitutes this “negative press coverage”.

  2. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/15/2019 - 10:28 am.

    ABC news reported yesterday, that a Meuller confidant described the upcoming report as “very anti-climactic”.

    If a dedicated, well staffed and financed investigation fails to come up with anything consequential, how could anyone conclude any House hearings that follow are anything other than ill intentioned harassment feom the left?

    The answer is; no one could come to any other conclusion.

    If leftists wish to maintain even a facade of credibility, they should hold themselves in check until the DOJ releases the report of the special prosecutor.

    • Submitted by ian wade on 01/15/2019 - 12:09 pm.

      Yeah…why waste time with this? Get back to investigating Benghazi some more.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 01/15/2019 - 12:50 pm.

      Otherwise known as rumour.
      The report has not yet been completed, much less published;
      ‘anticlimactic’ may simply mean that Trump himself will not be charged by Mueller with a criminal offense. Mueller has issued dozens of charges, many of which have resulted in guilty pleas. Others are coming from other prosecutors based on Mueller’s information.
      Again, note that impeachment by itself does not imply a criminal charge.

  3. Submitted by Jim Smola on 01/15/2019 - 12:30 pm.

    Remember the Benghazi investigation that came up with nothing so you have to conclude the multiple hearings were nothing but harassmentfrom the right!

  4. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 01/15/2019 - 03:30 pm.

    Trump started his campaign attacking anyone and everyone, then he whines when he is given back what he gives. You reap what you sow. He lies and attacks the press then complains the press is biased when they fact check him.

    For those who say there is a witch hunt going on because Trump hasn’t been charged with a crime yet, the key word is “yet”. The witch hunt has resulted in indictments and guilty pleas and settlements with many people associated with him and his campaign. That is not a witch hunt. They are working their way up the food chain and it would be a surprise if all those guilty parties were led by a totally innocent man.

    I don’t understand Republicans who stand by a man who has attacked our allies and befriended our historic enemies. He trusts the Russian dictator over his own intelligence services without proof. I will await the findings of the Mueller investigation but on the evidence so far shared with the public he seems personally corrupt, politically inept and possibly a traitor to his country.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/15/2019 - 06:35 pm.

    I’m inclined to agree with the “cautious” Democrats. My hope is that the new Democratic majority will focus most of its efforts on governing the country, and not on pursuing an obviously incompetent Chief Executive’s shady business dealings, his childishly insecure character, or emulating the faux-religious crusade of the GOP to impose an ideology on the country. Trump has displayed the mind set and behavior of a spoiled child, a bully, which fits pretty well with the small, family-run business that is the Trump organization.

    While the President’s language and attitudes are despicable, they were despicable before and during the campaign, and obviously, many people still voted for him. I, for one, did not expect him to “grow into the office.” Like a lot of spoiled, privileged children, self-aggrandizement is one of his most striking characteristics – “I deserve all I have and more.” He views the presidency as an opportunity to line his pockets, and much of his criticism of the press (not to mention elected officials, especially foreign [non-Russian] leaders who have the temerity to disagree with him about anything) stems from his perception that such criticism might harm his “brand,” reduce its profitability, and draw attention to his several flaws.

    Plenty of former presidents have used the office to pad their bank accounts, but not until Trump took office have we had one so blatantly do so **while in office.** The example he sets for a nation that still expects more of its leaders than personal greed is sad, indeed. Mr. Barnes’ suggestion that Trump has been harassed and received negative coverage by the press more than any other U. S. president is an interesting fantasy, but not based on anything factual. Much – not all, but the majority – of what’s labeled by Trump supporters as “negative press” is simply straight-ahead reporting by news organizations of Mr. Trump’s actions, and verbatim repetition of Trump’s own words. He’s crude, dishonest, and badly-educated, among other traits, and those attributes show up with regularity in his tweets and other public statements.

  6. Submitted by Ole Johnson on 01/16/2019 - 08:01 am.

    It would be nice if there were specific crimes identified before investigations were begun.

    Investigating any citizen without evidence of a crime is a fishing expedition and shouldn’t be tolerated.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 01/16/2019 - 09:33 am.

      Not to get picky, but sounds like a cart before a horse? How do you know if you don’t investigate, if you already know, there is no reason to investigate. .

    • Submitted by ian wade on 01/16/2019 - 01:26 pm.

      Mueller was tasked to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.” Considering the number of indictments thus far, I’d say this “fishing expedition” has been quite fruitful.

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