President Trump declared himself the “magic man” on Tuesday night, hailing his own “big victory” after Republicans gained seats in the Senate despite losing control of the House of Representatives in the midterms.
But while Trump was praising himself on Twitter, Democrats in the House were preparing to turn the second two years of his presidency into a legal nightmare.
By taking control of the House of Representatives, Democrats unlocked the power to launch fresh inquiries into every aspect of Trump’s presidency, including links to Russia, his businesses, his tax returns, payments to women, family separations at the border, and much, much more. Democrats have already logged a list of at least 64 subpoenas they would have sent if they’d been in charge of the House.
“Republicans in the House have been acting as President Trump’s defense counsel,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, who will likely head the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “We are required to be a check and balance over the executive branch. We haven’t been doing that because Republicans have been aiders and abetters.”
This hailstorm of investigations threatens to turn Trump’s White House into a round-the-clock legal battle station for the next two years, legal experts and former congressional investigators told VICE News.
These investigations will make plenty of headlines. By design, they’ll be noisier, and far more public, than special counsel Robert Mueller’s silent operation, which has been investigating Trump's links to Russia for a year and a half.
“The House is a fishbowl compared to the black box of the special counsel,” said Charles Tiefer, special deputy chief counsel for the House Iran-Contra Committee's investigation during the Reagan era. “It will hold public hearings, and expect witnesses to show up.”
Democrats will take control of the House’s 21 committees in January, giving the chair of each panel considerable power to launch probes and issue subpoenas on just about any subject under the sun.
While the exact rules vary between House committees, most allow the chair to personally authorize subpoenas. While many require the ranking member from the other party to be consulted or notified, several don’t even require that much, Congressional staffers told VICE News.
“House Democrats' posture toward the White House will become much more adversarial overnight,” said Jens David Ohlin, vice dean of Cornell Law School. “They will start asking for documents from the White House. And when they don’t get them, they’ll subpoena them. And they’ll be prepared to go to court.”
Practically every single committee is likely to be prepping at least one, if not several, inquiries into Trump, his Cabinet or his businesses, former Congressional staffers said.
Wide-ranging state and federal investigations into Trump’s campaign and business affairs combine with his extensive private holdings to yield a mind-boggling list of potential subjects, experts said.
“Donald Trump creates a target-rich environment,” said Andrew Wright, former staff director of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “There’s so much that the question will be what you really want to highlight.”
Democrats have already signaled what their future targets might be.
Democrats in the House Oversight and Government Reform have kept a running tally of 64 subpoena requests they say Republicans have blocked, on subjects ranging from Trump’s charitable foundation to his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s government security clearances.
“If you thought Benghazi was tough, try 10 Benghazis at the same time.”
Republicans expect a Democratic onslaught too. In August, a senior House Republican office cobbled together an entire spreadsheet listing more than 100 issues Democrats may want to investigate, Axios reported. Subjects range from the Hurricane response in Puerto Rico to whether Trump discussed classified documents at his golf resort in Mar-a-Lago.
Republicans know how dangerous a determined congressional investigation can be.
A panel of Republicans created after terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya, uncovered former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email server in 2015. The brutally partisan $7 million inquiry dragged on for two years without finding any evidence of culpability or wrongdoing by Clinton relating directly to the 2012 attack that killed four Americans.
But the Republicans dined out on Clinton’s decision to use a private email server, turning it into a national issue that dogged Clinton throughout her 2016 presidential run.
With Trump, Democrats have a hell of a lot more to choose from than just deleted emails, observers said.
“If you thought Benghazi was tough, try 10 Benghazis at the same time,” Ohlin said. “That’s what this might look like.”
The wave of investigations will prompt a series of titanic legal battles between Congress and the White House, which may wind up in the Supreme Court, experts said.
TRUMP, RUSSIA, AND A CLOUD OF CORRUPTION
Democrats may have their choice of subjects, but Russia tops the list.
Democrats are anxiously waiting to relaunch the House Russia probe that Republicans shuttered last spring, in a decision prompting bitter complaints about the dozens of witnesses and organizations Democrats said were never even approached.
In a renewed House Russia inquiry, Trump’s financial links will be a special focus, according to Adam Schiff, the California Democrat expected to lead the investigation.
“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 in The Washington Post in October. “It would be negligent to our national security not to find out.”
A renewed House probe could make Mueller’s efforts all the more potent.
Besides live-streaming witness testimony, a House investigation will have a broader mandate, stretching beyond Mueller’s focus on uncovering crimes related to collusion and obstruction.
A House investigation will look at all manner of conduct, from outright illegal activity to facts that simply make headlines and embarrass Trump.
Congress can make a powerful ally to any special investigator. During the Watergate scandal, a Senate committee — not the special prosecutor — revealed Richard Nixon’s secret White House taping system, dooming his presidency.
But during the Iran-Contra affair under former president Reagan, Congress granted immunity to two senior administration officials in exchange for testimony: former National Security Adviser John Poindexter, and Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North.
Both Reagan aides were later found guilty of multiple felonies tied to their roles in the scandal, but their convictions were overturned by appeals courts that found that their Congressional immunity had undermined their prosecutions.
Corruption is likely to be a major theme of investigations led by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Rep. Cummings.
The Trump administration has witnessed a parade of questionable ethics practices, including Trump’s own decision not to place his business interests into a blind trust.
Trump’s Interior Secretary, Ryan Zinke, alone, has faced no fewer than 18 inquiries into his personal ethics and practices.
“What I have been asking my Republican chairman to do all along is to gather the facts about the crisis of corruption in the Trump administration,” Cummings told VICE News in a statement. “The most important thing for the Oversight Committee to do is to use its authority to obtain documents and witnesses, and actually hold the Trump administration accountable to the American people.”
THE TAX RETURNS
Trump’s long sought after tax returns will also get the treatment. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has already promised that obtaining Trump’s tax returns would be “one of the first things we'd do” after retaking the House. Getting them would be the “easiest thing in the world,” she said.
But the reality is that Democrats will have to go to war to get Trump’s returns, according to Tiefer, who’s now a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
“The career people at the IRS will fight tooth and nail,” Tiefer said. “There are legal arguments both ways on the tax returns, and I don’t think the law is settled.”
Trump’s private businesses, however, represent a much softer target, because they don’t enjoy the degree of privilege that private individuals do under the law, Tiefer said.
Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich predicted in October that if Democrats subpoena Trump’s tax returns, the fight will quickly reach the Supreme Court.
Then, he said, Republican hopes will rest on Trump’s most recent pick for the high court, Brett Kavanaugh, who was installed in October after a bruising confirmation battle.
If Democrats go after Trump’s tax returns, “we’ll see whether or not the Kavanaugh fight was worth it," Gingrich said.
Cover image: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., speaks during a news conference about the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court accompanied by other Democratic members of the House, on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)