Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) greets his staff in the hearing room of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee as he returns to work after heart surgery earlier this month. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) faced 30 members of his staff in a cavernous committee room the other day and told them how, after a nearly three-month absence from Congress, he would never be the same.

He can't drink coffee anymore, or eat sticky buns. Staying up to watch the late news, that's out.

More importantly, Cummings said, a prolonged hospital stay and recovery from heart surgery revived his passion for the job he has held since 1996, especially the part of it that allows him to lead Democratic efforts to monitor the administration of President Trump.

"I've often said, don't ask the question, 'Why did it happen to me?' but, 'Why did it happen for me?' " Cummings told several dozen staffers, some in the room and some listening on speakerphone. "I am thoroughly convinced, and you will never convince me otherwise, that what I have gone through was for a purpose."


Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) speaks in his office on Capitol Hill. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

Before his surgery, Cummings, 66, tangled with Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) over former secretary of state Hillary Clinton's role in Benghazi, Libya, marched in the streets of his beloved Baltimore to help calm the riots that erupted after the funeral of Freddie Gray and challenged Martin Shkreli, the former hedge fund manager who raised the price of a critical drug, over inflated drug prices.

Not exactly the behavior of someone lacking in passion.

But at a time of multiple investigations into Trump associates' links to Russia, escalating tensions with North Korea and a new effort to undo the Affordable Care Act, the 12-term congressman said he feels responsible as a leader of the opposition party for protecting the very essence of democracy.

"It's bigger than me, it's bigger than you," he said at the gathering. It was the first time he had addressed his entire staff since returning to Capitol Hill after surgery to repair a heart valve, followed by infection and complications, such as a pain and swelling of the joints known as gout. "Every time you look at your little children, ask the question, 'What kind of future will they have?' "


The name plate of Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) sits on a table in the hearing room of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)

As the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Cummings worked closely last spring with then-committee chair Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) to unearth key documents about former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned in February after revelations about potentially illegal contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and Flynn's misleading statements about the matter to senior Trump administration officials.

Now Chaffetz is retired from Congress, and the committee is chaired by Gowdy, who so far has shown limited appetite for taking on his own party in the White House. On Tuesday, Gowdy joined Cummings in seeking information about the use of personal email accounts by senior officials in the Trump administration.

"I'm going to wait and see," Cummings said of whether he can find ways to partner with Gowdy.

In the meantime, he praised "a staff that keeps digging and digging and digging. . . . Why? Not to harm Trump. This is not about Trump. Not to harm Flynn. It's about trying to maintain a democracy, c'mon now."

The son of sharecroppers turned factory workers, Cummings said he developed a personal rapport and connection with Trump when they met in the Oval Office in March. The president seemed receptive, the congressman said, when he explained that it was hurtful for African Americans to hear the leader of the free world liken their neighborhoods to slaughter grounds.

"I felt like I was talking to somebody who lived on my block. Yeah, it was good," said Cummings, who has lived in the same West Baltimore rowhouse for 35 years and describes his neighborhood as the "inner inner city."

Cummings said he also suggested to Trump that the administration should examine voter suppression allegations.

During his time at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, he said, he would walk the halls and talk to patients who couldn't afford their treatment or had nowhere to go when they were released. Back in his room, he would flip on CNN and hear about Republican-led efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

"They don't seem to deal with the point that tens of millions of people will be thrown off of the rolls," he said. "What are they supposed to do, die?"

Despite this, Cummings told his staff not to be discouraged.

Holding his fists in front of him, he told the story of a 96-year-old African American woman, a Hillary Clinton voter, interviewed as she was leaving church a week after Trump's win.

The woman told reporters, "It's scary, but I ain't scared," Cummings recalled.

He repeated: "It may be scary, but we cannot be scared."