This week the Trump administration learns what Democratic oversight looks like.
After a 35-day government shutdown that consumed congressional leaders, Democrats hold a series of hearings this week that define a new normal in Washington: the Trump administration is in the hot seat. Empowered with their new majority and already facing roadblocks from key players in Trump’s orbit, committee leaders are moving ahead with the spotlight on some of the President’s most controversial policies and associates in a marathon not expected to end for the next two years.
After Trump delivers his State of the Union this week – an address intended to temporarily unite the country – Democrats gavel in oversight hearings on the President’s family separation policy along the southern border, probe the precedent of Presidential candidates releasing their tax returns and hear from Matt Whitaker – the acting attorney general of the United States who has alarmed Democrats with his posture toward special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
The week will end with a closed-door hearing in the House Intelligence Committee with the President’s former lawyer and longtime fixer Michael Cohen and there are still questions about whether Cohen will also appear in an open setting before the House Oversight Committee.
The long list of hearings is just a sampling of the scrutiny the Trump administration will face over the next two years, testing not just the President, but his Cabinet, policies and legacy.
“The Republican majority was willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt, and we are not going to be waiting for it work out. If kids are going to be taken from their parents at the border, we are going to be immediately investigating it,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, the chair of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on investigations. “It says we are not afraid to exercise our Article 1 prerogative of oversight of the executive branch.”
It’s taken Democrats weeks to put their committees together, an always-lengthy process that was delayed slightly by the pressures of the government shutdown. But, chairmen are vowing not to let the drama of the spending crisis permanently keep them from their work. Already, Democrats have sent dozens of letters demanding documents from the administration. Last week, Democrats on the Oversight, Senate Finance Committee, Foreign Relations, Intelligence and Financial Services committees sent letters to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin seeking to know why the administration rolled back sanctions on three Russian firms tied to billionaire oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
The House Oversight Committee formally launched an investigation into security clearance protocols at the White House. The Ways and Means Committee continues to be engaged in preparing to ask for the President’s tax returns using an arcane IRS code, and some committees have begun summoning cabinet secretaries to appear before their committees for questioning.
In some cases, those asks have fueled bitter public feuds and questions about whether secretaries are purposefully stonewalling the committees.
The House Ways and Means Committee canceled a hearing it had planned to hold on the effects of the government shutdown after Mnuchin declined to appear in January. And, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar declined to appear before an Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing on family separation although in a statement Health and Human Services said they had “communicated in good faith” with the congressional staff “to provide the department’s most knowledgeable subject matter experts to the subcommittee.”
DeGette has told CNN she reserves the right to request Azar to appear again if she doesn’t feel satisfied by answers at next week’s hearing.
The White House is also gearing up for the oversight and announced last week in an interview with CBS that Steven Groves, who previously worked as an assistant special counsel, would be the deputy press secretary devoted especially to coordinating press related to congressional investigations.
New chairmen – aware of the political risks of appearing too zealous in their new majority – have taken care to impress upon their members that there is a fine line between getting answers and political showboating. But, with high-profile freshman and liberal members serving on key committees like Oversight and Financial Services, warnings and preparations may only go so far.
“I have been on the oversight subcommittee hearings for 20 years, and I have seen chairmen come and go. I have told (members) we are not going to badgering witnesses. We are not going to be unreasonable in our documents requests,” DeGette said. “It is not going to be gotcha.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also warned Friday in a KQED radio appearance that Democrats would be “strategic” in how they deploy subpoenas, “but we will not be delinquent.”
So far, Democrats have cautiously avoided using their new subpoena power, but that restraint may soon be coming to an end.
Bennie Thompson, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, has said he won’t hesitate to issue a subpoena to compel the Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen to testify before his committee. Thompson has accused Nielsen of stonewalling the committee after she declined to appear February 6, but Nielsen’s staff has pushed back arguing they offered the chairman alternative dates for testimony.
The push and pull between the new Democratic Congress and the administration is only expected to intensify as the President’s circle seeks to shield Trump from around the clock scrutiny and Democrats continue to deliver rigorous pushback they say voters elected them to pursue.
“Hopefully we can get people in hearings and things to talk to them, but if there is a reluctance to talk to chairpersons and other things, I think those individuals don’t leave you much choice,” Thompson said on Capitol Hill last week. “There are new chairpersons taking over. I would assume that you would want to hear that vision that those individuals have. I would assume you want to see how you can be helpful in pursuing their roles and responsibilities and you can only do that when you talk to people, and hopefully we will get that done.”
CNN’s Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.