After winning House, Democrats’ real power may lie in investigating Trump

Zach Gibson, Getty Images North America/AFP | The US Capitol building pictured on November 7, 2018.

Democrats took control of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, ending one-party rule in Washington. But with any agenda facing roadblocks in the GOP-held Senate, the party's real influence may lie in its new power to investigate the president.


Democrats celebrated on Wednesday after newly winning a majority in the House of Representatives, ending the Republicans’ singular grip on all branches of government. The party’s victory in the House was tempered by Republican gains in the Senate, however, where the GOP managed to increase its slim 49-51 majority.

The Democratic policy agenda will likely face roadblocks in the upper chamber. But a House victory comes with some concrete advantages, among them expanded powers to investigate President Donald Trump, his administration and members of his campaign team. Trump may now be facing new requests for his tax returns and fresh probes into the business interests of the Trump Organization.

Democrats have been yearning to get their hands on Trump’s tax returns, which he has refused to release in a break with more than 40 years of precedent. The returns could offer a window into Trump’s globe-spanning business interests, revealing potential conflicts of interest and the extent of his commercial relationships with foreign governments.

Trump’s affiliations with foreign entities have already attracted a great deal of scrutiny. A federal judge ruled last week that a lawsuit alleging Trump had violated two emoluments clauses of the Constitution can go ahead. The suit claims Trump violated clauses on prohibiting federal officials from accepting gifts from members of foreign governments and forbidding the president from receiving benefits from state governments.

And Democrats now have the authority to issue subpoenas, demand documents or compel in-person testimony from members of the Trump administration. They can wield this power to shed light on not only Trump’s tangled finances, but investigations into ethics violations or allegations of corruption.

Democrats “must make an immediate priority of government oversight, which means lots of investigations”, said Grant Stern, a radio host, columnist and Trump critic. Members of the Trump administration have “outrageous conflicts of interest and may not be following federal law to the letter, for which they need to be held to account”.

The top Democrat on the subcommittee on government operations suggested a flood of subpoenas was already in the pipeline.

“It’s not like we’re going to go drunk-crazy with subpoenas,” Representative Gerald Connolly of Virginia told Bloomberg as the midterm results came in. “But it may seem that way because we are coming off a two-year drought of no subpoenas.”

One Trump adviser told Reuters that the president was likely unprepared for the succession of investigations that Democrats can now launch.

“I don’t think he fully comprehends what this means by giving the gavel to [Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi and her cronies,” said the aide, requesting anonymity.

Mother Russia

New investigations might also be launched into hush money payments made to porn star Stormy Daniels, who said she was paid to keep quiet about an affair with Trump ahead of the 2016 presidential election, members of the Trump family and a host of other allegations.

But the mother of all probes will likely be a new House investigation into Russian election interference and possible conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

“Investigating the Russian interference in the [election] and collaboration as well as financial ties to Russia is a top priority,” said Richard Painter, who served as George W. Bush's chief ethics counsel and has been a vocal critic of the current administration, in comments to FRANCE 24.

A previous House Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian influence was plagued by partisan divisions from the start. Its chairman, Devin Nunes, was accused of running interference for Trump; he eventually recused himself amid allegations that he shared classified information with the White House.

Republicans unilaterally ended the investigation in March – over objections from the panel’s Democrats – saying they had found “no evidence of collusion”.

Representative Adam Schiff of California, the committee’s top Democrat, issued a strident rebuke of the findings. “By ending its oversight role in the only authorized investigation in the House, the Majority has placed the interests of protecting the President over protecting the country, and history will judge its actions harshly,” he said in a statement at the time.

The work of the committee remains “fundamentally incomplete”, he added.

“If the Russians do have leverage over the President of the United States, the Majority has simply decided it would rather not know.”

With Democrats now in the majority, Schiff is poised to take over from Nunes as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He discussed his vision for what a Democratic House would do in an October op-ed for the Washington Post.

“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,” Schiff wrote.

“It would be negligent to our national security not to find out.”

Impeachment 'divisive'

Democrats have remained circumspect about any talk of impeachment, however, saying they prefer to wait until Special Counsel Robert Mueller has concluded his investigation into Russian interference.

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who is seeking a return to the role of speaker of the House, has discouraged public discussion of the possibility, calling it “divisive”.

“I don’t think there’s any impeachment unless it’s bipartisan,” she told CNBC after Democrats won back the chamber.

And yet the possibility remains intriguing for a significant percentage of the electorate. Around 40 percent of midterm voters said they wanted to see Trump impeached, according to a national CNN exit poll published Wednesday. A Washington Post/ABC News poll from late August found that 49 percent of Americans would like to see the House launch impeachment proceedings versus 46 percent who oppose the idea.

While articles of impeachment can be passed with a simple majority in the House, they would require the approval of two-thirds of the Senate. Any measure lacking bipartisan support is thus destined to fail.

And a failed impeachment attempt would likely galvanize Trump’s base to re-elect him in 2020, said Holly Figueroa O’Reilly, who successfully sued Trump for blocking her on Twitter and later co-founded the Democratic advocacy group Blue Wave Crowdsource.

Instead of impeachment, Democrats “should focus on intense and constant executive branch oversight and REAL investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 election”, she said in an email.

But even if impeachment remains a distant prospect, it may be dawning on Trump that Democrats can stir up real trouble despite only controlling the House. In an early morning tweet on Wednesday, he railed against Democrats for spending taxpayer money on investigating the White House and threatened to retaliate.

“If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level, then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else, at the Senate level. Two can play that game!”

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