Rep. Elijah Cummings has a lot of questions and not just about President Donald Trump.
After nearly a decade in the minority on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Cummings finds himself expected to be with a gavel at a time when there are mounting questions about the President of the United States, his Cabinet, associates and business interests.
“(Republicans) had basically acted as defense counsel for President Trump and so now we, because of our frustration and being in the minority, and making a lot of requests, we have a whole lot of things, and the question now is how do we prioritize them?” Cummings said.
But, the incoming chairman, a long-time resident and public servant of Baltimore, says if the public expects his committee to be razor-focused on Trump, they may be disappointed.
For Democrats hungry for made-for-TV hearings or hastily-delivered subpoenas, it’s a target rich environment and Cummings has perhaps broader jurisdiction than any other chairmen to investigate the President. But, Cummings, a 12-term congressman and lawyer who has endured years of heated back-and-forth during GOP-led committee hearings warns he’ll be deliberate about the year ahead.
“I believe that what we do in this Congress over the next year or so will have impact for the next 50 to 100 years,” Cummings said. “We’re going to cautiously go about with subpoenas … there would have to be something that has a compelling interest to the citizens of the United States, and would have to be something that comes under our jurisdiction. So, there’s certain criteria that has to be met. I do not expect to be issuing subpoenas – even the 64 that we’ve asked for because there are so many things that are backed up. And we’ll never get a chance to do everything.”
In the minority and without the power to compel testimony or documents, Cummings had a total of 64 subpoena requests denied by Republicans.
Now, it’s time to decide which ones to reissue.
As they prepare for the majority, Cummings says Democratic leaders and fellow chairmen are meeting, but discussions about which hearing to hold first or what investigation to launch first are still underway. Even questions about who will probe which issue are undecided.
“We’ve already begun to sit down to talk and try to hash out exactly who will do what. There’s some issues that have dual or even triple jurisdiction. So, maybe some of us will take a piece here, a piece there,” Cummings said. “But we will sit down and work that out along with the speaker and the majority leader. And that’s how that works. We’ve already begun that process. I don’t expect that to be a major problem because there’s so much to look at.”
Still, Cummings said he has some key areas of interest for his committee.
Early on, Cummings plans to invite Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to testify before his committee about the census and whose idea it was to include a question about citizenship.
He also plans to spend time probing how the President’s business interests impact American foreign policy.
Asked if he believed that Trump was being influenced by foreign governments, Cummings said, “I don’t know. But, all the evidence points to that. And that’s one of the things we want to look into.”
And, while Cummings believes it is too soon to talk about impeachment, he said that if Trump directed Michael Cohen to make payments to women as the Southern District of New York’s prosecution has alleged, it could be an impeachable offense.
“I probably would,” he said when asked if he agreed with incoming Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, that it come be an impeachable offense. “But again one of the things that I’ve been emphasizing is before we even talk about impeachment, let’s, No. 1, protect the Mueller investigation because the President has really attacked Mr. Mueller quite a bit and his investigation.”
Instead of interfering with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, Cummings hopes that Democrats put together a commission, one similar to the 9/11 commission, to probe the ways Russians actually interfered in the US election.
“We have not done is we have not properly addressed the whole issue of Russian interference and how do we prevent it,” he said.
At this point, Cummings says he’s not reached out to the President or White House counsel to gauge how cooperative they plan to be with his inquiries. But, Cummings warns they ought to be prepared to cooperate more than they did under the Republican chairman.
“When the Republicans were in control, and even when we did joint requests for documents, the President and his administration gave us nothing. Not even a syllable,” Cummings said. “And I think they did that because they knew there were going to be no repercussions. But now this is a new day.”
Not just Trump
Cognizant of the risks of overreaching or missing opportunities to do oversight outside the narrow window of the Trump administration, Cummings sees an opportunity for his committee to spend considerable time holding hearings on lowering the cost of prescription drugs and probing the ways, in which, Americans are being disenfranchised at the voting booth.
He has warned his fellow chairmen that part of building support from the public for their investigations is to probe things methodically and look at issues that matter to people back home in their districts.
“We want the American people to buy into whatever it is that we are trying to present,” Cummings said. “So that’s why – I’ve told them, just go cautiously, search for the facts, search for the truth, and defend the truth. And then present it.
Cummings’ tenure comes as there is mounting pressure from the base, but Cummings warns there are some things that are outside the White House that may be even more pressing.
“There are a lot of people sadly who cannot afford the medicine that are being prescribed by their doctors,” Cummings said. “That’s a life and death situation. So that would have some urgency to me.”
A battle-tested chairman
Cummings has been on the other side of the fight. From 2011 to 2017, the Maryland congressman proved to be one of President Barack Obama’s fiercest defenders after being selected ahead of some of his more senior colleagues to serve as ranking member of Oversight.
It was a period marked by glaring partisanship that reached a peak under California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa – a polarizing chairman committed to marathon hearings and tactics that once included cutting Cummings’ mic to stop him from asking a question after a hearing.
Cummings watched as Republicans spent their years in the majority investigating the gun-running scandal that became known as “Fast and Furious,” the Department of Energy’s loans to a bankrupt solar company Solyndra and whether the IRS was targeting conservatives, among others.
“I think Elijah had been a really effective leader in providing protection for the Obama administration. … That tested his skills in a way I am sure he never thought he would be tested,” Democratic Rep. Gerry Connelly, the vice-ranking member of the Oversight Committee, told CNN about the time. “It was a terrible, terrible and difficult time and Elijah had to manage all of that. He managed to do what frankly Mr. Issa did not, which was maintain his dignity and provide respect even if it was not reciprocated.”
Cummings also served as the top Democrat on the Select Committee on Benghazi, a more than two-year investigation into the September 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi Libya that left US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead. It was seen by Democrats as a GOP effort to keep the attack in the spotlight as Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, launched a run for President.
But Cummings said the experiences have prepared him for his job in charge. Next year he will serve alongside Rep. Jim Jordan, a conservative who is close to the President and has gained a reputation as a fierce defender of the administration.
“I’m going to hope that we will reclaim civility, because I don’t see how you can have any effective and efficient efforts if you don’t have civility,” Cummings said. “I am going to assume on the positive, and I’m looking forward to it to be frank with you. And so a lot of people have asked me, do you like him? And I like him. I think he’s a nice guy, and we’ll work through it.”
This story has been updated to include additional comment from Rep. Elijah Cummings’ interview with CNN.
CNN’s Greg Wallace and Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.