The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In new oversight role, Cummings pledges aggressive scrutiny of Trump

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) in his office in September 2017, on his first day back on Capitol Hill after heart surgery. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Maryland Democrat who is slated to take over the powerful House Oversight Committee, says a key focus for the newly aligned panel would be to determine whether President Trump is improperly profiting from his office.

On the morning after his party won control of the House, Cummings said Democrats would seek to review Trump’s tax returns as well as delve into dealings between the federal government and the Trump International Hotel near the White House.

Democrats have alleged that Trump, by virtue of his hotel, is in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bars presidents from doing business with foreign governments.

“President Trump has not been held accountable,” Cummings said during a 45-minute interview Wednesday at his Baltimore office, hours after winning reelection to a 12th term. “We want to figure out if the president is acting in the interests of the American people or in his own financial interest. I would consider it legislative malpractice not to do it.”

Democrats prepared to launch immediate investigations

As Democrats celebrated their House victories and contemplated ways in which they could flex their newfound political and legislative muscle, Trump used Twitter to warn his House rivals not to “waste Taxpayer Money” probing him.

“Two can play that game!” Trump tweeted, saying Republicans would be “forced to consider” their own investigations if Democrats did not stand down.

Cummings, who would have subpoena power in his new post, said House Democrats must decide the specific issues that will draw the focus of individual congressional committees. Possible subjects, he said, could include how Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in law, gained access to classified documents despite withholding information on a security clearance application about his contacts with Russian officials.

“We haven’t figured all this out yet,” Cummings said.

Another point of interest is Scott Pruitt, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who resigned in July amid a flurry of ethics investigations into his taxpayer-funded purchases of first-class airline tickets, spending violations and close ties to lobbyists.

“My concern with the EPA is how was Mr. Pruitt able to get away with all he got away with and remain there,” Cummings said. “A lot of this is the process. If you had the right guard rails, people pretty much have to stay on track.”

Cummings, 67, is a former Maryland state lawmaker who was elected to the House in 1996. His district includes large portions of Baltimore and Howard County.

After heart surgery in 2017, he was hospitalized this year with a knee infection, a malady that requires him to walk with the help of a walker.

But Cummings pronounced his health “great” and said he was “ready to hit the ground flying” in his new role, which would begin next year. “The American people are crying out for us to solve their problems,” he said. “I want to restore people’s confidence in government.”

Rep. Cummings works to heal his beloved Baltimore

Known for his booming oratory, Cummings drew national attention during Baltimore’s 2015 riots, when cable news stations captured him walking the streets of his neighborhood in what he calls the “inner inner city,” using a bullhorn to implore crowds to disperse.

As the Oversight Committee’s ranking Democrat, Cummings also took center stage when he defended then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during GOP-driven probes into her response to the attacks on an American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Former Utah congressman Jason Chaffetz, the Republican who was Oversight chairman from 2015 until last year, described Cummings as a “good man with a good heart” and recalled that he cooperated with Republican colleagues on the committee when they sent hundreds of letters seeking documents from the Obama administration.

Chaffetz said that Cummings’s greatest challenge in his new role will be to avoid overreaching his statutory authority.

“If you’re starting out with the tax returns, then you’re starting off the wrong foot,” said Chaffetz, who himself was the target of Democrats’ criticism for not seeking Trump’s financial records. “They’ve been trying to play that card since November of 2016, when Trump was elected. They’re desperate for it. They’re just seeking to embarrass the president.”

Chaffetz also said that Cummings is likely to learn that his power to issue subpoenas does not always yield results. “I sent letters and subpoenas to the Trump administration and got no response,” Chaffetz said. “I was stymied every step of the way. What makes you think Elijah Cummings will get a response?”

Cummings, a lawyer by training, insisted that he would approach his role with a fact-based, judicial bearing. He resisted the notion that he would emerge as a new Washington persona, a foil to the president.

“People keep saying, ‘Oh, Elijah Cummings is going to become Trump’s worst nightmare,’ and I hate it when I hear that,” he said. “It’s not about Elijah Cummings becoming anybody’s nightmare. It’s about Elijah Cummings simply trying to do his job and, by the way, giving my colleagues the opportunity to do their jobs.”

Trump will not be his sole focus, he said, adding that he would also devote the committee’s attention to the cost of prescription drugs, among other issues. But he regards restoring public confidence in Washington as a centerpiece of his mission.

“We now have an opportunity, as Democrats, to bring some normalcy to our government,” Cummings said. He recounted that he often tells constituents that Trump’s tenure is the equivalent of a storm.

“The question is not whether the storm will end,” the congressman said. “The question is where will our democracy be at the end of the storm?”