Already, congressional Democrats have amassed dozens of oversight requests targeting the White House, various Cabinet departments and private entities with business ties to Trump and his family.
So far those requests have mostly been ignored by the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. But if Democrats seize committee gavels, they would regain a plethora of tools to probe Trump over the next two years.
“Everything gets investigated,” said Thomas M. Davis III, the Republican former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, discussing the implications for Trump. “You spend half your time answering subpoenas, digging up documents and having your people appear before these committees. . . . Frankly, your legacy is ruined at that point.”
Davis lost his gavel after the 2006 midterms, and Democrats spent the next two years hammering at President George W. Bush — using their power to elevate a national debate over the Iraq War while also shedding light on other missteps, such as the firings of U.S. attorneys and the use of private email servers by White House political staffers.
Four years later, Republicans turned the tables when they took control of the House after the 2010 midterms. They fired investigative salvos at President Barack Obama, taking aim at the Internal Revenue Service’s scrutiny of conservative nonprofit groups, a failed Justice Department operation that resulted in the death of a Border Patrol agent and the deadly attack on U.S. installations in Benghazi, Libya, among other controversies.
Some nonpartisan political forecasters now favor Democrats to flip the 23 seats necessary to win a House majority, citing fundraising, special-election results and national polling. There is a much narrower chance Democrats capture the Senate, due to an electoral map that heavily favors the GOP.
The risks of Democratic oversight for Trump and his administration stand apart from the more loaded question of impeachment — a possibility that both Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have sought to down play despite broad support for it among Democratic voters.
Some outside Trump advisers have mused in recent days that losing the House would be a political disaster but saw a silver lining in the possibility that Democrats would veer left next year and be a foil for Trump, according to two Republicans familiar with those discussions who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Those who served in the last GOP administration that dealt with a Democratic congressional majority said Trump and his allies would be making a mistake to minimize the consequences.
“There is a never-ending stream of outrage,” said Scott Jennings, a Republican political consultant who served in the final three years of the Bush White House. “The only difference is, now all of their outrage is directed at Twitter. But when you give somebody a gavel, they can actually hurt you.”
Jennings, who was among those investigated over the private email servers, predicted “investigatory paralysis” for the Trump administration if Democrats retake either chamber: “It will bog officials and staffers from the most senior levels of government to the lower levels,” he said. “Their mission would be to stop the EPA or any other regulatory agency from just functioning, basically, until they can regain power.”
Democrats are openly indicating that they will aggressively investigate Trump in a way that his own party hasn’t if they ultimately secure subpoena power. The investigative requests Democrats have already made over the past 18 months are a likely template for those efforts.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, for instance, released a 38-page summary in April of their attempts to probe Trump and his administration — including dozens of letters, legislative maneuvers and court filings. Few of those have generated any substantive response, the report conceded, but “these oversight efforts help lay the predicate for action by the committee if the Democrats retake the House majority in the fall.”
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee — the panel with the broadest investigative jurisdiction in Congress — was careful not to presume Democrats would regain control. But he said in an interview it was difficult not to contemplate the possibilities that would come with not only subpoena power, but also a much larger staff and investigative budget.
“You dream every day what you would do if you were in the majority,” he said.
Since Trump took office, Oversight Committee Republicans have blocked more than 50 Democratic subpoena requests ranging from documents pertaining to the administration’s health-care policies to information on the government’s use of chartered airplanes to a demand for testimony from former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
Cummings acknowledged that his committee would take a close look at Trump and his administration, “exposing it where I believe that it is harmful to our country,” he said, but would also scrutinize policy issues such as prescription drug prices, postal reform and preparations for the 2020 Census.
“I want to actually use the hearings and the investigations to do something,” he said. “I’m not looking for any shows, like theater. I’m looking to try to resolve problems. So we’ll be looking at the Trump administration, but I don’t want people to get confused.”
Mindful of not appearing presumptuous about November’s results, both Cummings and a senior Democratic leadership aide said there has not yet been any effort in the House to develop a coordinated oversight agenda ready to deploy if Democrats regain the majority.
Unlike the partisan congressional probes into Bush and Obama, which focused mainly on alleged missteps by subordinates, Democrats are primed to put the president himself in the investigative crosshairs in a manner not seen since the public learned of Bill Clinton’s Oval Office trysts.
For one, Democrats would be able to inspect Trump’s federal income tax returns for the first time — a trove that they have long demanded but Republicans have shown no interest in obtaining. Under federal law, any tax return can be examined by the chairman of any of the three congressional tax committees.
Other information regarding Trump’s personal finances and business dealings could also be subject to Democrats’ prying eyes. They could include rosters of hotel clients and members of Trump golf and social clubs, as well as details of real estate deals that his companies have participated in. Some information is already in government hands, such as monthly cash reports on Trump’s Washington hotel, which is operated in the federally owned Old Post Office under a lease with the General Services Administration.
Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee have repeatedly sought records pertaining to Trump’s business dealings.
Last year, they called on the panel’s Republican majority to issue subpoenas to Deutsche Bank seeking copies of documents “related to any internal reviews of the personal accounts of the President and his family” — including records pertaining to hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to both the Trump Organization and companies affiliated with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The Democratic leadership aide said that a likely oversight priority would be to shed light on the Trump administration’s efforts to undo policies enacted under the Obama administration, including the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and various civil rights policies.
Democrats on virtually every House and Senate committee have pressed the Trump administration for answers on various controversies. The top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) has made repeated requests for information on the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year, as well as Trump’s controversial border policies.
Four Democratic senators on Thursday requested a Pentagon investigation into whether the White House improperly offered tours of Air Force One to members of Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida.
Robert Costa and Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.