In the Trump-era, Democrats in Congress have been loud – but largely powerless.
That could soon change.
If the party wins control of the House this November, they’ll gain the oversight power to throw muscle behind their resistance movement. With subpoenas and hearings, Democrats are hoping to get answers they feel their Republican colleagues have intentionally avoided.
But it won’t be easy. Democrats want to investigate a wide range of issues they see in the Trump administration that fall under the purview of multiple House committees. According to a Democratic leadership aide, members and staffers are now holding initial discussions to coordinate strategy for possible areas of oversight.
Earlier this summer, Democrats adopted a new messaging campaign against what they call a “culture of corruption” in Washington that could only be cleaned up by Democrats. It’s a strategy that worked for their party in 2006.
“You will see us use every arrow in our quiver to find the truth about what’s happening in public policy, what they’re doing to the environment,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in a recent interview with NPR that published Tuesday.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and likely chairman if Democrats take control, said in a statement that his committee “would finally do what Republicans have refused to do, and that is conduct independent, fact-based, and credible investigations of the Trump Administration.”
Cummings added the committee is interested in looking at possible conflicts of interest within the Trump administration, GOP efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, postal service reforms, prescription drug pricing and voting rights.
CNN reported last week that multiple White House and Republican sources say there is a growing unease inside the West Wing and among President Donald Trump’s political advisers about a Democratic-controlled House.
“Every news story is going to instigate a subpoena,” one source said last month. “It would be really miserable. I think people (inside the White House) understand that as best as they can.”
It’s unclear yet which issues Democrats would tackle right out the gate. Leaders will have to sort through competing demands among a diverse caucus that’s been outraged by one controversy after another for the past year and a half. Some are eager to follow through with campaign promises to go after corruption and ethical concerns – while others want to focus on legislation that would advance the Democratic agenda, instead.
“There are so many different players involved in these corruption scandals and ethical issues, that I think we would have to start with whoever we think are the worst actors and then go out from there,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois who sits on the Oversight Committee. “But I refuse to believe we don’t have enough time to conduct robust oversight. I think the American people are demanding it.”
Democrats will also have to decide the tone and level of aggression they want to use in their oversight efforts.
“We don’t want to pull a Benghazi or something like that,” Krishnamoorthi said, referring to the Republican-led select committee investigation into the 2012 attack that killed four Americans, including US Ambassador Chris Stephens, at the US compound in Benghazi, Libya. The investigation turned into a politically-charged event, with Democrats accusing Republicans of trying to derail Hillary Clinton’s then-presidential bid.
“It was a waste of time, and it didn’t surface any new information that would provide credence for their theories about Hillary Clinton,” Krishnamoorthi said. “I don’t want us to necessarily get into a bunch of those types of dramatic showdowns. I think we have to do our job and patiently-but-firmly get to the bottom of the issues we’re concerned about.”
Democrats have already laid some groundwork on a number of issues this session.
On the oversight committee, Republicans have denied 52 subpoena requests by Democrats since the beginning of the Trump administration, according to a Democratic count. The vast majority involve requests for documents from federal agencies on a wide range of topics, from Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and security clearances to hurricane recovery efforts and chartered flights for government officials.
“All of us have a thick stack of investigative and hearing requests that were rebuffed by the majority,” said Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who sits on the Oversight committee. “So those unrequited requests are going to be a good place for us to start.”
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have also tried to conduct oversight, with dozens of letters sent to the administration requesting documents and reports on a range of issues. Top Judiciary Democrat Jerrold Nadler of New York said in a statement those efforts “help lay the predicate for action if Democrats retake the House majority in the fall.”
When Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee ended their probe earlier this year looking into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Democrats on the committee quickly put out a potential roadmap to reopening the investigation if Democrats take the majority.
The so-called status report, created by the Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff, lists 30 witnesses the Democrats want to call, along with entities they would subpoena or seek documents from. The potential witness list includes some senior officials from the Trump administration such as former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former press secretary Sean Spicer and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
On the Homeland Security Committee, Democrats are sure to look into the border wall, the child separation issue that dominated part of the summer, Hurricane Maria recovery efforts, the travel ban and the President’s push for “extreme vetting” of immigrants, according to a committee aide.
Trump’s tax returns, emoluments and the firing of former FBI Director James Comey are also among the myriad of issues that Democrats are eying.
“I think this President is the only president in my memory who has not disclosed his tax returns,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat. “I think that committees are going to want to see the tax returns and whether or not there are additional conflicts of interest.”
But Hoyer added he’s urging the Democratic caucus to make the economy its “first focus.”
Multiple members and aides predict that Cabinet secretaries will be a huge priority in the early months of a Democratic-controlled House. Two of Trump’s Cabinet picks – former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt – resigned amid allegations of misusing government resources. And Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has become a big target among the progressive base, who question her ethics and competency.
While some Democrats appear eager to push for impeachment, especially after the guilty plea last month by Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen, most are still waiting for special counsel Robert Mueller to finish his investigation.
Pelosi has largely kept her party on message and avoided major pushes for impeachment. Reacting to the news about Cohen, Pelosi told the Associated Press that “impeachment has to spring from something else.”
“If and when the information emerges about that, we’ll see,” she said. “It’s not a priority on the agenda going forward unless something else comes forward.”
CNN’s Phil Mattingly, Jeremy Herb, Jim Acosta and Elizabeth Landers contributed to this report.