Democrats Start Investigative Gears, but Slowly
WASHINGTON — Democrats, transitioning into the House majority, have quietly sent dozens of letters in recent weeks seeking documents and testimony from President Trump’s businesses, his campaign and his administration, setting the table for investigations that could reach the center of his presidency.
Clear targets have emerged in the process, and some others appear to have fallen away, at least for now. Family separation and detention policies at the border have jumped to the forefront. So has the acting attorney general’s oversight of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III. But Democrats, after slamming House Republicans for their inadequate inquiry, do not plan to reopen a full-scale Russian interference investigation. They have also chosen to hold off on an immediate request for Mr. Trump’s tax returns.
For eager liberals coming off two years of Republican oversight paralysis, the next few weeks may feel something like a game of hurry up and wait. Arranging witnesses and wrangling sensitive government documents take time, and most House committees have yet to be populated with lawmakers, not to mention much of the legion of lawyers who will do a lot of the work of investigations. The Intelligence Committee did not technically have a chairman until last week.
“Those people who are expecting some kind of Hollywood movie here are going to be disappointed because it is going be very orderly,” said Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut and a senior member of the Intelligence Committee.
Here is what Democrats will focus on first.
Immigration policy and the special counsel’s investigations.
The impasse over Mr. Trump’s proposed border wall and the death late last month of an 8-year-old boy from Guatemala in United States custody have catapulted the administration’s divisive policies at the border to the top of House Democrats’ agenda. Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the Judiciary Committee chairman, and a handful of other chairmen plan to examine immigration policies.
Their interest and detailed questions could prove problematic for Mr. Trump’s efforts to make a case for his border wall, shining a light on gaps in the current policy and trying to highlight the human toll on migrants.
“We are calling on D.H.S. to preserve any and all evidence related to these horrible incidents,” the chairmen wrote. “We as a country can and must do better.”
Mr. Nadler has already invited Matthew G. Whitaker, the acting attorney general, to be the committee’s first public hearing witness, and indicated in recent days that he would subpoena Mr. Whitaker if necessary to compel an appearance before the end of the month. Democrats are intent on pressing Mr. Whitaker on his involvement in the ousting of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his role in the oversight of the special counsel investigation and other policy matters, including the administration’s decision not to defend the Affordable Care Act in a lawsuit brought by Republican state attorneys general.
Mr. Nadler has indicated that he intends to wait for Mr. Mueller to conclude his work before seriously considering an impeachment inquiry— a prospect weighing heavily on Democrats that could swamp other oversight efforts. But he said in December that the committee would begin investigating facts presented by federal prosecutors that strongly point to Mr. Trump’s involvement in hush-money payments just before the 2016 election to two women who claim to have had affairs with him, a violation of campaign finance law. They will also look at what Democrats view as “improper” communications between the president and federal law enforcement.
On Russia, targeted questions rather than a full inquiry.
After seething over Republican use of the House Intelligence Committee to turn an investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election into an attempt to discredit the president’s investigators, Democrats plan to quickly flip the lens back on to Mr. Trump and his campaign itself. But the panel’s leaders have cautioned that their approach will be narrower than once predicted.
“We are conscious of the fact that the Senate continues to do their work, Mueller continues to do his work, and at this point in the game, I would not expect the committee to announce an omnibus investigation,” Mr. Himes said. “The time has passed for that.”
Instead, Democrats will initially pursue at least two questions — one discreet, the other potentially very complicated — that Republicans in control of the committee would not touch. The panel’s new chairman, Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, said it was initiating a request for phone records of the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., to clarify whom he called while arranging a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan between members of the Trump campaign and a Russian lawyer. Phone records already in the hands of congressional investigators show a call was placed to a blocked number, and Donald Trump Jr. told investigators that he did not remember who he had called. Democrats believe the blocked number may have belonged to his father, and could prove that the president had prior knowledge of the Russian offer to share dirt on his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The committee would also like to request financial records related to Mr. Trump’s dealings with Russia and other foreign powers, but that ultimately may have to rope in the House Financial Services Committee. Intelligence Committee Democrats appear to be circling around two well-known but still mysterious transactions: Mr. Trump’s sale of a Palm Beach, Fla., mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008 and loans to the Trump Organization from Deutsche Bank.
In the real estate case, Mr. Trump bought a Palm Beach estate for $41 million in 2004 and, only four years later, amid a national housing crisis, sold it to the Russian billionaire, Dmitry Rybolovlev, for $95 million. Democrats say the deal stinks of potential money laundering. Loans from Deutsche Bank — hundreds of millions of dollars extended by a bank later accused in an unrelated case of laundering Russian money during a time when few other major banks would lend to Mr. Trump’s businesses — also raise concerns that Russia could have financial leverage over the president.
Democrats are prepared to subpoena the records if necessary. Mr. Schiff said staff had already begun informal conversations with institutions, potential witnesses and their lawyers about records requests, but because the panel has not technically been appointed yet, formal requests must wait — most likely until the end of January.
Mr. Schiff declined to name specific witnesses except Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer who has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Trump Organization’s dealings with Russia and to buying the silence of two women who say they had affairs with Mr. Trump.
Wait, but what about Trump’s tax returns?
Democrats tried more than a dozen times over the past two years to obtain Mr. Trump’s tax returns. But now that they finally have the opportunity to do so — thanks to an obscure 1920s tax code provision — the relevant Democratic committee chairman appears to be in no rush.
In an effort to parry Republican accusations of overreach, the House Ways and Means chairman, Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, has decided instead to try to first build a public case for why the returns ought to become public before he lodges a formal request. He plans to convene a hearing this month focused on presidential tax returns in conjunction with sweeping anticorruption legislation that includes language requiring all presidents and candidates to make their returns public.
Ultimately, Mr. Neal and Democrats do not need new laws. Sometime after the hearings — probably in February — Mr. Neal plans to invoke Section 6103 in the tax code, which allows chairmen of the House and Senate tax writing committees to request from the Treasury Department tax returns or related information on any tax filer. In theory, committee investigators could then privately study the returns for any compromising or illegal financial dealings. The committee would have to vote to make any of the information public.
Whether the administration will put up a fight remains unclear. Mr. Trump has said publicly that he does not care if Democrats pursue the documents; Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, has said he will defer to legal counsel. There is, however, scant precedent for this particular case: Mr. Trump is the first president or major presidential candidate in decades to refuse to release his returns.
The low-hanging fruit: hurricane response, security clearances and government jets.
Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, had a stern and straightforward message when he sent off 51 oversight letters to cabinet secretaries and Trump Organization lawyers shortly before Christmas: Consider this “a basic first step” and not a voluntary one.
As he stands up the House’s marquee investigative committee, Mr. Cummings has deliberately chosen to begin with targets that Republicans once agreed should be studied, but failed to follow up on. They include records related to the administration’s response to Hurricanes Irma and Maria, which devastated American territories in the Caribbean; Ivanka Trump’s use of a private email account for government business; the use of government jets for personal travel; misconduct by the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt; and the Flint, Mich., water crisis.
Laying the groundwork to look for potential violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clause, which bans payments from foreign governments to federal officeholders, he wrote to the Trump Organization requesting documents related to the company’s procedures for identifying foreign payments.
In each, Mr. Cummings said he expected the documents by Friday. Subpoenas could follow if they are not produced. But much of the committee’s investigative work is likely to remain private in the coming weeks.
Other targets appear to be imminent. Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York, said she and Mr. Cummings agreed they would study what she called the Trump administration’s attempts to manipulate the 2020 census for political gain.
“Our whole democracy is based on representation,” Ms. Maloney said, “and if there is a conscious effort to undercount representation, that is an attack fundamentally on our democracy.”