“Where do you begin?”: Trump has created more scandals than House Democrats can realistically investigate

“I liken it to being the cleanup crew at an 88-car pileup on the highway.”
December 20, 2018, 4:18pm
Trump has created more scandals than House Democrats can realistically investigate

Russia. Hush money. Trump’s tax returns. Family separations. Foreign money laundering. Ivanka’s emails.

President Trump’s chaotic presidency has kicked up a long list of potential targets for investigation. So long, in fact, that Democrats preparing to investigate the administration after they take the House in January face a dilemma: There may be too many Trump scandals to chase after them all.

Democrats are now quietly discussing ways to focus their attention on the most pressing issues. One danger, they say, is spreading limited resources — like staff, time and public attention — too thin, creating a wash of white noise that just gets tuned out.

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“The problem here is not going to be an insufficiency of targets,” Rep. Jim Himes, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told VICE News. “The problem is going to be: What do you go after?”

Trump already faces an astonishing amount of legal scrutiny for a modern American president, stemming from at least 17 distinct court cases run by no fewer than seven different sets of prosecutors and investigators, according to a recent tally by Wired.

“I liken it to being the cleanup crew at an 88-car pileup on the highway,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who’s on the judicial and oversight committees. “Where do you begin?”

WONKS VS. DIRT DIGGERS

An overwhelming focus on investigations could come at the expense of passing bills and trying to set government policy, according to Andrew Wright, who served as the staff director of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and as associate counsel to former President Barack Obama.

“Yes, there is a trade-off between investigating and legislating,” Wright said.

Chief among those trade-offs: staffing.

“It’s Hungry-Hungry Hippos for new staff right now.”

After the House majority switches, the size of the Democrats’ committee workforce will roughly double, according to former congressional staffers.

Democrats will then face a choice about who to hire: seasoned legal wonks who can help draft laws, or investigators who know how to dig up dirt.

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“It’s a question of how you use the budget,” said Michael Volkov, who served as the chief crime and terrorism counsel for both the Senate and House judiciary committees. “I expect you’ll have more staff for oversight.”

These hiring decisions are being made now, in a flurry of resume reviews and interviews on Capitol Hill.

As a general rule, the majority in any House committee gets to field about twice as many staffers as the minority, former House staffers told VICE News. As of 2016, there were 1,298 full-time committee staffers across the entire House. By those numbers, the Dems are poised to add as many as 400 new hires to their committee rosters.

“It’s Hungry-Hungry Hippos for new staff right now,” said Wright.

But the process of filling those positions will likely take several weeks after the House flips in January, former staffers said.

Once the teams are set, there’s the question of how they’ll spend their time.

TRUMP’S MONEY

Some clear lines of investigation are already emerging. One simply follows Trump’s money.

Rep. Adam Schiff, who’s tipped to become chairman of the powerful House Intelligence Committee, has signaled he’ll zero in on the question of whether Trump’s foreign policy decisions are being driven by private money-making incentives.

“What ought to concern us the most, from an oversight point of view, is: Is there any entanglement with a foreign power that might influence U.S. policy against our national interest?” Schiff said on Meet the Press on Sunday.

“The basic malady we face is that the president has turned the government of the United States into a money-making operation for himself, his family and his friends.”

Schiff put his finger on both Trump’s efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and questions about Saudi Arabia potentially funneling money into Trump’s inauguration and hotel business.

He’ll have powerful backers from another key congressional body: the House Oversight Committee.

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“The basic malady we face is that the president has turned the government of the United States into a money-making operation for himself, his family and his friends,” Rep. Raskin told VICE News. “We have a continuing flow of money from princes, kings and foreign governments into the operations of Trump Inc.”

Trump’s business interests represent an easier target than the White House, which is protected by executive privilege, said Charles Tiefer of the University of Baltimore School of Law, who was former special deputy chief counsel for the House Iran-Contra Committee during the Reagan era.

“The House has a great ability to go into the Trump Organization, which is private, and call witnesses and ask to see documents,” Tiefer said. “It’s hard to see how executive privilege would apply to a hotel business.”

But the oversight committee, which is specifically charged with running investigations, is also considering a range of issues beyond Trump’s money, a House Democratic aide told VICE News.

Those subjects include:

  • Trump’s financial conflicts of interest
  • The security clearance process for top administration officials
  • Ethics scandals among senior White House and Cabinet officials
  • Politically motivated attacks on law enforcement, government watchdog groups, and others
  • Trump’s immigration and child separation policies

On Wednesday, the incoming chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, fired off 51 letters to the White House and other federal bodies requesting documents on a host of issues, ranging from the Flint water crisis and EPA misconduct to the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

STRAIGHT CRIME

Trump house democrats investigations

President Trump’s former personal attorney and “fixer,” Michael Cohen, was recently sentenced to 36 months in jail for nine felonies, including a criminal scheme to help Trump win the 2016 election. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Some suggest a line should be drawn at actual crime — committed by the president himself, or by those in his administration and inner circle.

“One filter we should use is: Do we have reason to believe that an investigation is likely to uncover criminal activity?” said Rep. Himes.

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Even by that standard, the Trump administration has provided plenty of targets.

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump’s links to Russia has dropped some three-dozen indictments and convicted several of Trump’s former top aides of felonies.

Beyond Congress, federal and state prosecutors are also encircling Trump’s White House, campaign, transition team, and company.

In October, a massive New York Times investigation found that Trump “participated in dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including instances of outright fraud.”

“Do we have reason to believe that an investigation is likely to uncover criminal activity?”

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan have said Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney and “fixer,” acted at Trump’s direction when he committed two campaign finance-related felonies by orchestrating hush-money payments to women in 2016.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office is probing whether Trump inauguration donors gave money in exchange for favors.

And on Tuesday, the New York attorney general announced Trump’s scandal-plagued charitable foundation had agreed to dissolve under judicial supervision, and blasted the charity for “clear and repeated violations of state and federal law.”

IMPEACHMENT ANXIETY

Despite the flurry of investigations, most Democrats say they’re wary of heading down the road toward impeachment.

“Is impeachment premature? Yes,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told VICE News in November. “We don’t have the case yet, and we may or may not [ever] have it.”

Still, Democrats aren’t closing the door entirely.

“I think the members of the judiciary committee are all agreed that impeachment should be neither a fetish with us nor a taboo,” Raskin said. “Nobody should be walking around obsessed with it…. It’s not a panacea to everything that ails the republic.”

Cover image: President Donald Trump points at a member of the audience while speaking the 2018 Project Safe Neighborhoods National Conference at the Westin Kansas City at Crown Center in Kansas City, Mo., Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)