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A reader’s guide: 12 targets as House Democrats prepare to investigate the Trump administration

House Democrats plan to pursue a series of investigations into the Trump administration in the 116th Congress. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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Now that Democrats will control the House, they have free rein to launch as many investigations into President Trump and his administration as they would like. They plan to hold back on any impeachment proceedings — despite nearly two-thirds of voters in battleground states who supported Democratic candidates wanting them to start — until they see what is uncovered in Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

But they still have plenty of other ways to keep themselves busy.

Democrats understand that a significant message from voters last week was for them to provide a check on the Trump White House. Over the past week, incoming committee chairs have said they are planning to utilize their newfound power to this end but will do so strategically. Soon-to-be House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said Sunday on ABC’s This Week, “I’m not going to be handing out subpoenas like somebody’s handing out candy on Halloween."

Candy or not, there is a lot to chew on. Here is a list, and it is nowhere near exhaustive, of the areas the Democrats plan to investigate and hold hearings on when they take over in January.

Russian interference

Yes, Democrats will wait for Mueller’s report, but incoming House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) has said he would look at how the House’s probe into potential meddling was incomplete and seek to fill in any remaining gaps. His predecessor, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), has been accused of trying harder to find a government conspiracy against Trump rather than wrongdoing by Russia and the Trump campaign.

In an interview with the Fix, Schiff said that “it’s not my intention to sit by idly while we await Mueller.”

“It may be that there is a report before we even take the gavel, and if that’s the case we’ll be guided by what their findings are. It’s my hope they’ll be shared with Congress and the American people. This is too big an issue to be swept under the rug, but if the Mueller report is not available, we intend to push forward with important investigative work. The reality for us is: Republicans walked away from the investigations. They decided to dedicate themselves to the president’s defense, but we never walked away from it. That will be our intention, to finish this work, and we’ll now have power to compel people to testify.”

On a related topic, Schiff wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last month that his committee would address “allegations the Russians may possess financial leverage over the president, including perhaps the laundering of Russian money through his businesses.”

Matt Whitaker

If new acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker does not recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation because of his outspoken critiques of Mueller and the probe’s merits, and if Whitaker is still in the position by the time the new Congress convenes, House Democrats are prepared to investigate his conflicts of interest.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the likely next chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union” that he plans to summon Whitaker to testify as his panel’s first witness and is prepared to subpoena him if necessary. And Schiff, on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said that if Whitaker does not recuse himself, his actions related to the investigation will be scrutinized for any interference.

“If he has any involvement whatsoever in this Russia probe, we are going to find out whether he made commitments to the president about the probe, whether he is serving as a back channel to the president or his lawyers about the probe, whether he’s doing anything to interfere with the probe. Mr. Whitaker needs to understand that he will be called to answer. And any role that he plays will be exposed to the public,” Schiff said.

Hush money

The House Oversight Committee plans to investigate Trump’s role in paying Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, who alleged they had affairs with him, to stay quiet before the 2016 election. Cummings sent a letter in September to the White House and the Trump Organization requesting documents related to the hush payments but never received them. Now that Democrats are in the majority, they have more leverage to demand that information.

Tax returns

Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), who will take over the gavel of the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said that if Trump does not voluntarily release his tax returns, Neal will file a legal request with the Treasury Department that they be released to a small group in Congress. Neal said last week he expects the issue to end up in federal court.

He also told our Post colleagues that “he could obtain the returns using a 1924 law that gives heads of the congressional tax-writing committees the right to request any American’s tax returns. The panel could then make them public with a simple majority vote.”

Emoluments clause

There are already two lawsuits underway alleging Trump has violated the emoluments clause in the Constitution by accepting payments from foreign governments via dignitaries staying at the Trump hotel in Washington. One of the lawsuits was brought by Democratic members of Congress, and a judge in September ruled they had legal standing to do so. But as the lawsuits make their way through the courts, Cummings has said a potential violation of the Constitution for personal financial gain is one issue he plans to have his committee investigate.

And Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), a senior member of the transportation committee, which has jurisdiction over government properties (the hotel is in the former U.S. Post Office building), said the panel will investigate the Trump hotel, telling Bloomberg TV last week: “We have a constitutional responsibility. . . . Did the president receive money from a foreign government? Think Saudi Arabia. Think Kuwait.”

Security clearances

Democrats want to know how certain individuals, such as Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and former staff secretary Rob Porter, were working at the highest level of the White House without security clearances. They will also probe Trump’s decision to revoke security clearances from John Brennan, the former Central Intelligence Agency director, and other Trump critics.

Media targeting

Schiff thinks Democrats should probe whether Trump used his office to try to punish companies associated with CNN and The Washington Post.

Schiff pointed to Trump’s effort to block AT&T from purchasing Time Warner, the parent company of CNN, and his desire to get the U.S. Postal Service to increase shipping costs for Amazon, whose chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Post.

“The president is not only castigating the press but might be secretly using instruments of state power to punish them,” Schiff said in an interview with The Post on Sunday. “That’s a great threat to press freedom.”

Brett M. Kavanaugh

While some Democratic voters would love to see the new House majority take up impeachment charges against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, Nadler said Sunday that that is not the path he plans to take. Instead, he said he intends to use the power of his committee to investigate why the FBI did not do a more thorough job looking into the allegations of sexual misconduct made against Kavanaugh during his confirmation process.

Nadler said on ABC’s “This Week” he would be examining “the process by which the FBI was stifled in its investigation by the White House.”

Family separations

There remain many unanswered questions about the White House’s “zero tolerance policy” at the border that resulted in the separations of thousands of children from their parents. Many children remain separated, and Cummings’s oversight panel intends to probe the lapses that occurred, both in how it is that children are still in government custody as well as reports that children were mistreated while in government care.

Health care

Democrats made health care, and specifically protections for people with preexisting conditions, a cornerstone of their midterm campaign platform. Now Nadler wants to launch an investigation into the Trump administration’s decision not to defend the Affordable Care Act against a lawsuit that, if successful, would bring down the entire law.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

The Education and Workforce Committee under Democratic control are going to demand more answers from DeVos, who has largely avoided oversight of her work at the Education Department. Inside Higher Ed called her “one of the biggest losers of the midterm elections,” explaining:

Democrats will focus on decisions by DeVos on two major higher education rules. She’s proposed a more restrictive overhaul of the borrower-defense rule, which allows defrauded students to seek loan forgiveness, and a repeal of the gainful-employment rule, which holds higher ed programs accountable for graduating students with debt they can’t repay.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke

Our Post colleagues reported last week that Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who will take over the House Natural Resources Committee, wants to investigate Zinke “on his personal conduct and management decisions.”

On Wednesday, Grijalva said he and his colleagues want the interior secretary to provide answers on several fronts. Last month, the Interior Department’s acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, referred that inquiry, which is examining whether Zinke used his office for personal gain, to the Justice Department.
“This is our check and balance, our constitutional obligation and our jurisdiction,” Grijalva said. “Us exercising our oversight and accountability responsibilities is not asking for a war with the administration.”