In their final pitch to voters before the November elections, Democratic leaders in Congress are avoiding impeachment talks, both of President Trump and newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.
But House Democrats are talking a lot down the home stretch about other ways they could make Trump’s life difficult. And if Democrats win back the House of Representatives in the fall — which is likely — there’s a lot they could do short of the “i” word, from investigations into Trump and his allies to trying to get Trump’s tax returns.
Expect investigations into Trump to be a big part of a Democratic House for three reasons, said Andy Wright, a former House Democratic investigative staffer and current senior fellow at Just Security:
- Trump and his Cabinet have departed from a number of good-government ethics norms.
- Republicans in Congress have not been keen to investigate their president, noticeably less so than the last time Republicans held unified power, during the Bush era.
- It’s politically advantageous for Democrats to be critical of Trump, who is one of the most historically unpopular presidents in modern times.
“So the amount of demand and lack of supply — [investigations] will just be off the charts when the Democrats get the House,” Wright said.
House Democratic leaders acknowledge all this investigating could come across as too political. “It’s very important we are not scattershot,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in an interview with Politico’s Playbook. “I’m not having any pound-of-flesh club.”
Still, it’s no wonder Democrats are already planning what they’ll do when they get the gavels. Here’s what they’re gearing up for:
1. Get Trump’s taxes
By now it’s clear that Trump isn’t going to release his tax returns unless he’s forced to. So forcing him will be the first thing House Democrats will do, promised Pelosi. “That’s the easiest thing in the world. That’s nothing,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board.
Some experts say she’s right, that Congress can get Trump’s tax return under power they gave themselves in the 1920s and strengthened in the 1970s in a fight with President Richard Nixon over his taxes.
It’s not clear if Congress could or would release those returns publicly, but there’s evidence that they contain information that could be politically damaging to Trump. The New York Times pieced together decades' worth of other financial documents to conclude that the president was given more than $400 million from his father, much of it through dodging tax rules.
2. Probe the nexus of Trump’s business decisions and his governing decisions
Along with being president, Trump simultaneously owns a real estate empire (though his sons oversee its day-to-day operations).
Ethics officials say the potential for conflicts of interest is high. It’s allowed his critics to question just how much his decision-making in governing is dependent on safeguarding his financial interests. Like, for example, why Trump won’t publicly criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“There are serious and credible allegations the Russians may possess financial leverage over the president, including perhaps the laundering of Russian money through his businesses,” argued Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) in a Washington Post op-ed published Sunday. Schiff would likely take over the all-important House Intelligence Committee that can look into Russia election meddling and any ties to Trump. “It would be negligent to our national security not to find out,” Schiff wrote.
These kinds of investigations could shed light on the president’s wavering on whether to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the disappearance of a journalist. As The Post’s Philip Bump pointed out, at a 2015 campaign rally, Trump said this of the Saudis: “They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them?"
Democrats don’t even need to get into lengthy legal battles with Trump over his personal financial documents to look into this, Wright said. A lot of the president’s financial dealings are likely fingerprinted by third parties, like Deutsche Bank, which gave Trump hundreds of millions worth of loans as he tried to expand his business a decade ago.
3. Probe his Cabinet officials' potential conflicts of interest
Like Trump, some of his top public officials have also been accused of having their financial interests overlap with their jobs. In July, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross sold millions of dollars of stock months after his ethics disclosure said he’d sell it. (He said it was an oversight.)
A number of Trump's current and former Cabinet officials have been accused of overspending on the taxpayer dime. Even Cabinet members forced to resign over ethical and spending issues seem like fair game to Democrats.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) would lead this as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He told Politico he’s already planning to investigate why Scott Pruitt, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, stayed on the job so long after numerous spending and ethical scandals.
4. Look into Trump’s Supreme Court justice
Did Kavanaugh lie to the Senate under oath about his drinking habits in high school? Or his involvement in stolen Democratic emails during the Bush White House? And what about whether he assaulted Christine Blasey Ford?
Kavanaugh hadn’t even been confirmed by the Senate when Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said he planned to investigate all of this if he got the gavel of the House Judiciary Committee.
On Nadler’s to-do list: interview dozens of potential witnesses to the multiple accusations against Kavanaugh, subpoena the FBI investigation into two of his accusers and look into whether there was any inappropriate communication between the White House and the FBI on what to look into.
Polls suggest he’s got support from Americans to undertake this unusual investigation into a sitting Supreme Court justice. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that half of Americans don’t think the Senate did enough to investigate whether Kavanaugh committed sexual misconduct in high school and college.
And one reason Nadler is likely already talking about this now: That same poll found 55 percent of independents say there should be further investigation of Kavanaugh.