The Trump administration’s free ride from Congress is over.
New Democratic House committee chairs are set to launch subpoena-powered investigations into the president’s finances, Russian interference, and administration ethics scandals. After two years of low-energy Republican oversight, the Trump administration’s policies and its basic competence in running the government will be under serious scrutiny for the first time.
Republicans have been supremely worried about this prospect for some time. “Winter is coming,” one Trump ally told the Washington Post before the election. If the Democrats won the House, the source continued, “The White House will be under siege.”
The siege is about to begin. The big game changer is that the majorities in congressional committees have the ability to approve subpoenas: to compel document production or in-person testimony, from government agencies and officials as well as private citizens.
The committees themselves can’t bring criminal charges as a result of the investigations, but they can refer the conduct they find to the Justice Department. Just as consequentially, scandals they unearth could have political consequences in the media and at the ballot box.
Each committee will be led by a chair, and each chair will have some leeway to decide where to expend their committee’s investigative resources. These are the key players who will do much to shape President Trump’s 2019. So here’s what we know about some of the most important incoming chairs, and their investigative ambitions.
Intelligence Committee — Adam Schiff
by Andrew Prokop
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) has already become well-known as Devin Nunes’s rival and foil atop the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. But once he becomes chair, Schiff will be one of the most important figures setting the Democratic House’s investigatory agenda on Russia as well as other intelligence-related topics.
Schiff plans to use his subpoena power to more intensely probe Trump’s ties to Russia, since Democrats think their GOP predecessors’ investigation of the subject was incurious, and concluded far too quickly. And one particular interest of his is in following the money.
“One of the issues that has continued to concern me [is] the persistent allegations that the Trumps, when they couldn’t get money from US banks, were laundering Russian money,” Schiff recently said on the Lawfare Podcast. “If that is true, that would be a more powerful compromise than any salacious videotape or any aborted Trump Tower deal.” To that end, House Intelligence Committee Democrats are trying to hire money laundering and forensic accounting experts, the Daily Beast’s Betsy Woodruff and Spencer Ackerman reported.
That’s not the only money trail Schiff is interested in. The California Democrat has also said that he plans to investigate Trump’s financial ties to Saudi Arabia. “The president is not being honest with the country about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” Schiff said on CNN. “Is his personal financial interest driving U.S. policy in the Gulf?” he asked. “Are there financial inducements that the president has not to want to cross the Saudis?”
Schiff also thinks the administration’s North Korea policy is ripe for some oversight, and has questioned Trump’s rosy assessment of Kim Jong Un’s intentions. “The president keeps telling us that we can sleep well at night because North Korea is on the path to denuclearization, but I see no evidence of that,” he recently told Vox’s Alex Ward.
Oversight Committee — Elijah Cummings
by Ella Nilsen
The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is the House’s main watchdog for the executive branch. But for the past two years, the Republicans running it have spent little time on oversight of Trump’s appointees.
With incoming chair Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), that’s about to change.
Cummings has a mountain of potential subjects to investigate in the Trump administration, from Trump and his family’s own business entanglements with foreign governments to allegations of corruption and a revolving door in his administration.
“They’ll have to make choices,” former Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, who previously chaired the committee, told me. “They have the ability to investigate anything.”
Over the past few years in the minority, Cummings and his staff have filed well over 50 subpoena requests for the Trump administration to Republicans — but because, they were in the minority, Democrats remained powerless to issue these subpoenas themselves. These involved investigating the administration’s response to Hurricane Maria, locating migrant children separated from their families by the Trump administration’s policies, investigating the ethical issues of Trump’s former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, and more.
“We’ve got to address this issue of exposing President Trump and what he has done, and we’ve got to face the truth,” Cummings told me recently. “The president is a guy who calls truth lies and lies truth. But at some point, he’s also creating policy, and that’s affecting people’s day-to-day life.”
Judiciary Committee — Jerry Nadler
by Ella Nilsen and Dara Lind
If President Trump were to be impeached, the process would start in the House Judiciary Committee — which will be chaired by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY).
But Nadler is in no rush to get to that point. “It’s too early,” he told the New York Times Magazine’s Jason Zengerle in November. He added that he would only begin the process if he believes an “appreciable fraction of the Trump voters” could become convinced. “You don’t want to tear the country apart.”
For now, Nadler plans to investigate what’s been going on at the Justice Department since Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s sudden firing and replacement with Matthew Whitaker. And he’s indicated he may reopen questions related to the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
His committee also intends to take the lead on oversight of Trump’s immigration policy. Oversight of the Department of Homeland Security is fragmented, but the Judiciary Committee has pretty broad jurisdiction over Trump’s enforcement of immigration law. Given how aggressive the Trump administration has been in changing executive branch immigration policy, and how opaque or slapdash some of those moves have been, there is more than enough for Nadler to take up.
Democrats’ questioning of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in December offered some hints about where Nadler and his committee would like to go, including the widespread family separations of late spring 2018 and the treatment of unaccompanied children in the custody of Health and Human Services.
Nadler’s Judiciary Committee will also likely lend some investigative heft to Democratic appropriators’ efforts to cut funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests and detention. Immigration detention has exploded over the past two years despite Republican appropriators’ efforts to limit spending on it — so Democrats will likely ask questions about who is being detained, for how long, and why.
Ways and Means Committee — Richard Neal
by Tara Golshan
Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) hopes to get his hands on President Trump’s tax returns. He’s just not yet sure how or when, exactly, he’s going to do it. “Our staff is working on it,” Neal said in December.
The Ways and Means Committee is one of the most powerful in the House, with jurisdiction over broad swaths of tax and health care. And Neal intends to scrutinize Trump administration policies about the Affordable Care Act, protections for preexisting conditions, and prescription drug pricing.
But it’s the long-running mystery of what’s in Trump’s long-concealed tax returns — which he promised to release during the campaign and then didn’t — that Neal is asked about most often.
“One of the things that I’m going to try to convince him of is voluntarily relinquishing the documents,” Neal told the Amherst Wire. “We’re going to try, in this case, to convince him to do it, but at the same time prepare the legal case for asking for the documents.”
That legal case may hinge on an obscure law from 1924 that says the Ways and Means Committee chair can request to the Treasury Department to review any individual’s tax returns in closed session.
NBC News reported that “committee sources could find no evidence” that this law “had ever been used” for this purpose — but that they’re likely to try it anyway. But a spokesperson for Neal told Politico that they might not do so right away, because Neal “wants to lay out a case about why presidents should be disclosing their tax returns before he formally forces him to do it.”
And even if and when the request is made, don’t expect Trump’s tax returns to be handed over right away — Neal has said he expects a court battle over the matter, and there are further questions about how exactly he’d be able to make informations in the tax returns public.
Financial Services — Maxine Waters
by Emily Stewart
As chair of the House Committee on Financial Services, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) will have an opportunity to scrutinize broad swaths of the financial industry and agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. She’s also indicated she plans to target the megabank Wells Fargo and the credit score company Equifax.
But, of course, she’ll also take aim at President Trump. In a letter to colleagues after the 2018 midterms, Waters said she intends to follow the “Trump money trail,” starting with Deutsche Bank — one of the few banks that still lend money to Trump and also does business with his son-in-law Jared Kushner — and “suspicious activity reports” filed with financial crimes officials.
As ranking member of the committee, Waters sent letters asking about Trump’s financial ties with Russia and asked then-committee chair Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) to subpoena information on his ties to Deutsche Bank. As committee chair, she’ll have the ability to conduct investigations — and issue subpoenas — on a number of matters related to the Trump administration and Trump family’s finances, including potential ties to Deutsche Bank, Citibank, and Russia.
Foreign Affairs Committee — Eliot Engel
by Alex Ward
Under Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), the Foreign Affairs Committee plans to dig into Trump’s connections abroad and whether his business interests might be influencing the administration’s policies.
In addition to the obvious topic of Russia, the committee hopes to obtain more documents about the Trump Organization’s property in Panama. Earlier this year, Trump’s company appealed directly to Panama’s president to stop its eviction from the building as managers. Some say that episode shows a clear conflict of interest between Trump’s duty as president and his ties — since severed — to his namesake company.
But a Democratic congressional aide listed several other foreign policy topics the committee hopes to investigate, including:
- Greater oversight of the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The committee is particularly interested in looking into reported “loyalty tests,” where officials are vetted for their loyalty to Trump.
- Updating authorizations for the use of military force abroad, which have remained untouched since 2002.
- Ending America’s support for the war in Yemen, a move for which there is has been growing congressional support.
Energy and Commerce — Frank Pallone
by Dylan Scott
Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) is taking over the gavel at Energy and Commerce, a committee with some of the broadest jurisdiction in Congress — and his planned oversight agenda for 2019 reflects it. The Trump administration has given Pallone and his staff plenty of openings to burrow into the scandals and controversial policy decisions of the past two years.
For starters, there’s the environment. The incoming Democratic first-term members are animated by climate change, and Pallone’s committee plans to examine how the Trump administration, led by a president who denies climate change even exists, is neglecting or even exacerbating the problem.
They will in turn spend a lot of time on the Environmental Protection Agency, which has rolled back Obama-era regulations governing coal and methane while also disbanding an air pollution review panel. Democrats have been agitating for a hearing on how the EPA handles toxic chemicals, based on worrying press reports, and will now have the freedom to pursue the issue.
Health care is the other huge topic that falls under the committee’s purview. Pallone’s office says they plan to probe various regulations and funding cuts from the Trump administration that seem designed to undermine the Affordable Care Act. They have also already requested — and can now set — a hearing on Trump’s family separations policy and how health officials are planning to reunite children who were separating from their parents at the border.
Natural Resources — Raúl Grijalva
by Umair Irfan
A few weeks after Democrats’ midterm elections victory, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) — the incoming chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources — wrote that scandal-plagued Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was “unfit to serve” and should step down.
At first, Zinke responded on Twitter with defiance and innuendo about Grijalva’s purported drinking habits. But just two weeks later, Grijalva got his way: President Trump announced that Zinke was out.
Grijalva plans to investigate both policy and ethics matters from Zinke’s controversial tenure. On Zinke’s watch, the Interior Department proposed the largest rollback of federal land protections in US history and opened nearly all US coastal waters to offshore drilling. Democrats say they want to investigate how the fossil fuel industry influenced these policies, as well as whether the agency properly considered the environmental implications of its decisions.
The committee also plans to scrutinize Zinke’s temporary replacement, acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel lobbyist. “His years of lobbying on behalf of clients who stand to profit from Interior policy decisions are cause for serious concern,” Grijalva said in a statement to Earther.
Veterans’ Affairs — Mark Takano
by Emily Stewart
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs has seen tumultuous times under the Trump administration — the president’s first VA secretary was forced out, his replacement nominee withdrew amid scandal, and current VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has faced controversies of his own at the department.
As incoming head of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) will have the opportunity to dig into what’s been going on.
One of the potential items on his agenda for a probe will likely be the ProPublica report in August that found that three members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort — Marvel Entertainment chair Ike Perlmutter, Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskowitz, and lawyer Marc Sherman — were essentially calling the shots at the VA, reviewing policy and personnel decisions from the get-go. Congressional Democrats requested emails and communications between the three and VA officials, but Secretary Wilkie refused to provide them, citing ongoing litigation.
Takano also told the Hill that he will also focus on ensuring the VA doesn’t “slow walk” filling thousands of vacancies in its ranks. And, Takano is likely to continue to press the VA for answers on delayed housing benefits payments to student veterans under the Forever GI Bill. In November, he led a group of Democratic lawmakers in sending a letter to Wilkie asking for answers on the topic.
Science, Space, and Technology — Eddie Bernice Johnson
by Umair Irfan
In December at an American Geophysical Union meeting, a conference of top physicists, geologists, and atmospheric scientists, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) told the gathering that climate change would be front and center for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which she will chair.
“As we look forward to next year, with a change in leadership on the Science Committee, you can expect to see a renewed focus on climate change,” Johnson said.
It will be a stark shift from the tenure of her predecessor, retiring Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who has denied that humans are changing the climate and spent years subpoenaing climate scientists for research documents, emails, and correspondence. Critics, including Johnson, described the subpoenas as “harassment.”
Come January, Johnson said the committee will instead focus more on how federal agencies under the Trump administration are handling climate science and research matters — scrutinizing, for instance, the EPA’s ousting of science advisers and its proposals to limit the kinds of research that can be used to make regulations.