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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?

Potential topics of investigation into Trump administration actions numbering in the dozens — as many as 85, by one estimate.

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?

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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.”

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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.

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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.”