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House Democrats are forming a new oversight subcommittee to investigate Trump

And they’re scrapping a terrorism subcommittee to do it.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) during a news conference on April 5, 2017 in Washington, DC.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) during a news conference on April 5, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

House Democrats are scrapping an important terrorism subcommittee — and replacing it with one created in part to investigate President Donald Trump.

It’s the latest sign that Democrats, who took control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections, will use their newfound powers to look hard at Trump’s financial ties to foreign countries. The goal, some Democrats tell me, is to see if the Trump family’s global business dealings have colored the president’s foreign policy judgment in any way.

The new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), told the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser on Friday of his plan to reestablish an oversight and investigations subcommittee that the previous Republican chair disbanded six years ago. Three people in Congress I spoke to confirmed the move, which will officially be announced in the coming days.

That means one of Capitol Hill’s most important bodies will spend at least the next two years looking to see if Trump’s foreign connections have affected his policy decisions. Democrats will also use the new subcommittee to oversee the State Department’s day-to-day functions and ensure that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other leaders are following the rules.

While there are other existing committees that will be looking into various aspects of the president’s actions, this may be the only new subcommittee established in this new Congress with the express aim of digging into Trump’s background — which means it’s sure to garner a lot of attention.

Why Engel is creating a new oversight subcommittee

Congressional committees have what’s known as the “full committee” and “subcommittees.” The full committee — in this case, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, or HFAC — includes all of the lawmakers assigned to that body. They, mainly, hold big hearings and discuss legislation that they feel all of Congress should consider.

Subcommittees, meanwhile, focus on more specific areas; in HFAC’s case, those are typically broken down into regions: Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, or a specific issue area, as with the terrorism one.

Engel’s plan, which a senior Democrat says the Congress member first floated to Democrats late last year, is to have those subcommittees deal with all regional issues, including trade, immigration, and terrorism. That means all the things that the terrorism subcommittee once covered — which also included trade and nonproliferation — will now move to the regional panels.

That opens up space for HFAC to create a new subcommittee, since Congress limits the number of panels and funding for them. Engel will fill the void with the oversight subcommittee, which former Chair Ed Royce disbanded back in 2013.

A necessary change, or a partisan move? It depends whom you ask.

Reactions to the news have been expectedly mixed: Democrats are mostly in support of any effort to hold Trump accountable, but Republicans are criticizing it as a mostly partisan move.

A senior Democrat on HFAC told me Engel’s initiative is the right thing to do.

“Trump has fucked up the State Department,” the Democratic member of Congress said. “[He’s] left important positions vacant for too long, shrunk the diplomatic corps, completely sidelined his first secretary of state, made alliances with rogue leaders around the world, endangered longstanding alliances and generally helped damage America’s standing around the world.”

A Democratic staffer on the committee also defended Engel’s decision, saying that the panel had failed to conduct oversight when it was under Republican control. “Just because the last Congress didn’t do [oversight] doesn’t mean this one shouldn’t,” the aide said.

Another Democratic staffer, though, was critical of the move. “The idea that foreign affairs staffers are qualified enough to look into Trump’s business and understand anything is absurd,” the staffer told me.

“It’s also politically dumb. If I’m a Republican political strategist it’s the easiest messaging in the world: Democrats care more about hurting Trump than protecting the country from terrorism or nuclear proliferation,” the staffer continued.

A former Republican staffer who worked on HFAC in the last Congress echoed those sentiments, saying that Engel’s decision is a highly partisan one that will weaken Congress’s ability to oversee and legislate on issues relating to terrorism, especially since terrorist groups — like ISIS, for example — operate in more than one region.

What’s more, they added, the regional committees have so many things going on that it is only natural overworked staffers won’t have the time to focus on terrorism properly.

“This all seems like a step in the wrong direction,” the Republican former staffer concluded. “Democrats are poisoning the well with partisanship.”

Engel clearly disagrees, and some experts think he’s right to.

“Donald Trump is a far greater long-term threat to the wellbeing of the nation than terrorism,” said Daniel Benjamin, a top counterterrorism official in the Obama administration’s State Department and now at Dartmouth College.

“There are a number of terrorism-related issues that I would hope the new Congress would take up, but I’m sure those can be handled by other subcommittees,” he continued. “The time and energy needed to investigate the president more than justifies this move by Rep. Engel.”

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