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House Democrats torn over how aggressively to scrutinize Ivanka Trump, president’s other children

Ivanka Trump and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross arrive before President Trump hosts an American Workforce Policy Advisory Board Meeting at the White House on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

House Democrats are torn over how aggressively to investigate the intersection of Ivanka Trump’s private financial interests and her service in the White House — an area of inquiry that probably would inflame tensions with President Trump, who has warned Democrats against scrutinizing his family.

Senior Democratic investigators have discussed opening an oversight probe into whether the president’s daughter benefited personally from her position as a White House senior adviser, including through Chinese regulators’ approval of trademarks for her apparel company.

But investigating Ivanka Trump is so politically sensitive that Democrats are proceeding with caution. It is unclear even which House committee would take the lead; aides for several panels with jurisdiction suggested that other committees may be better suited to probing the president’s eldest daughter.

As the investigations of President Trump and his associates widen to include his family, they're taking to the airwaves to discredit the probes. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

The internal deliberations — and, in some quarters, reluctance — highlight the concern among some Democrats about the political optics of questioning Trump’s adult children, even as they insist the president’s family members, especially those serving in government, should not be immune from accountability.

Presidential children rarely draw the scrutiny of congressional investigators, but Trump’s adult children fill unique roles in his administration, with Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, carrying the title of senior advisers to the president while being heavily involved in policy decisions and Capitol Hill negotiations on criminal justice, the Middle East and paid family leave.

“Whomever falls into that net, falls into that net,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday, arguing that Trump’s children are not off limits to investigations. “They are advisers to the president. They have security clearances. This is not their children at home.”

But at the same time, some Democrats appear in no rush to bring Trump’s children to Capitol Hill to testify. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Oversight Committee, said such a move would be “very dicey business” and “too high-profile.” 

“The optics don’t work for us, in my opinion,” he said. “It easily plays into the victimhood narrative on the Republicans side.”

Still, a Democratic aide familiar with the House’s investigative plans said the Ivanka business matter would probably be a focus for investigators at some point. Democrats have questions about whether Trump’s daughter used her official role in the White House to boost her own finances, particularly concerning Chinese trademarks.

The aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss private discussions on Democratic plans, stressed, however, that the party would be strategic about summons to Trump’s children and wait for the prudent time to reach out to them and look into each matter. 

Abbe Lowell, the attorney for Ivanka Trump, did not respond to a request for comment.  

The issue comes as House Democrats’ investigations of the president are ensnaring several of Trump’s other children. Some are key players of interest in high-profile controversies that Democrats are investigating, including payments to silence women, Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and alleged security-clearance abuses. 

Donald Trump Jr.’s signature, for example, is inscribed on a check Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, presented to House investigators last week — reimbursement, Cohen said, for illegal campaign contributions he made to women alleging affairs with Trump. Ivanka Trump, The Washington Post reported, leaned on her father to give her husband, Kushner, a security clearance against the advice of intelligence officials who worried about his vulnerability to foreign actors. Two House Democratic chairmen are already probing the latter.

“Jared Kushner and Ivanka don’t receive any immunity from public or congressional investigation because they’re related to the president,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who sits on both the Oversight and Judiciary committees investigating Trump. “A family member who accepts official governmental responsibilities or participates in illegal activity has no special immunity from investigation.”

“They have to be as accountable as everybody else,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). “We’ve got to do our job. . . . We are not crossing any lines.”

Any move to probe Ivanka or any of Trump’s children will probably infuriate the president. Trump regularly complains that House Democrats are trying to impeach him and ruin his family, according to a senior administration official, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. He has said privately he does not want his children testifying on Capitol Hill or providing documents to their investigations. 

Senior officials, including former chief of staff John F. Kelly, warned the president that having his children and family members in the government would open them up to formal oversight and scrutiny that they would not have otherwise, according to officials. Before the Democrats took the House, Trump even told Kelly that his children should just go back to New York and asked Kelly to help make that happen. 

It never did.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, declined to comment specifically on Trump’s adult children but suggested Congress would be making a mistake by investigating the president’s family. 

“Maybe cooler heads will prevail,” Giuliani said. But, he added, Democratic congressional leaders “have given every indication that they are not listening to the prudent people in the party, but are falling all over themselves to get attention.”

White House officials argue an aggressive inquiry into Trump’s adult children risks backfiring on Democrats and looking like harassment. The spectacle of House Democrats interrogating Donald Trump Jr. or Ivanka Trump in public hearings could prove politically damaging to Democrats, they said.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of the president’s, agreed: “[Trump] thinks they are out to tear him and his family apart. I’m sure Clinton thought the same thing” during impeachment.

This is not the first time Trump’s family has been the subject of congressional investigations. In the last Congress, GOP-led committees in the House and Senate questioned Kushner and Donald Trump Jr. on matters related to Russia, although the sessions were behind closed doors. Both men attended the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting where Russians promised campaign dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton. 

Given the controversies surrounding the Trump family, many senior Democrats say they will have to grapple with the awkward situation eventually. In addition to the hush-payment issue and conflict-of-interest questions, Cohen testified that he kept Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump appraised on plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the election, a project that lies at the heart of Democrats’ Russia inquiry.

Additionally, recent reports about Ivanka Trump going to her father to press for a security clearance for her husband fall squarely in the purview of Oversight Democrats’ clearance process investigation. A refusal to ask Trump’s children about the matter would be viewed by many Democrats as a glaring omission. 

Another senior Oversight Democrat, Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (Mass.), said bringing Trump’s children in should be a “last resort” and suggested perhaps there was a “less intrusive” way to question the younger Trumps beyond public testimony. But if that doesn’t work, lawmakers have to do their job, he said. 

“They’re part of the operation, so they’re integral,” he said. “I think there’s just a sense of decency that you don’t do that unless you really have to. We’re not out there to cause family problems. But in this case, like I said, there is no exemption for anyone. If we have to get the information, we have to get it.”

Democratic investigators have closely followed the Ivanka business issue for two years. In early 2017, House Judiciary Committee Democrats wrote a letter to then-White House counsel Donald McGahn and Abigail Klem, president of Ivanka Trump Operations, asking about Ivanka’s involvement with the company and its interactions with foreign governments. Though she had removed herself from her company during her time at the White House, “we remain concerned that Ivanka Trump may have used and may continue to use her official position within the White House to benefit her private interests,” the letter read.

Since then, Democrats have noticed that while Trump has been negotiating with China over major trade issues, Chinese officials have approved several of Ivanka Trump’s trademarks. Last May, China approved more than a half-dozen Ivanka trademarks around the time Trump shielded a major Chinese state-owned equipment company from U.S. sanctions. The year before, Ivanka’s clothing line saw the same trademark boon the same day she dined with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the president’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

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