Nation & World

Newly empowered, House Democrats plan to launch immediate investigations of Trump, but leaders are wary of impeachment

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington on Nov. 6, 2018.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington on Nov. 6, 2018.

WASHINGTON - House Democrats are prepared to launch multiple investigations of President Donald Trump next year but are wary of immediately pursuing impeachment - seeking to satisfy an energized base without alienating the voters they need in the next election.

Despite widespread support among Democrats to try to remove Trump from office, party leaders are worried that such an explosive move could create peril in 2020 for lawmakers who represent districts the president carried in his first bid.

Instead, Democrats are expected to use their newly regained majority to scrutinize Trump administration policies on immigration, education and health care, and to examine his personal finances and potential ties to Russia.

"For those who want impeachment, that's not what our caucus is about," House Minority Leader Pelosi, D-Calif., told PBS's "NewsHour" on Tuesday before the party clinched the majority. She said she would not move to impeach Trump unless at least some Republicans were on board.

Pelosi added that she will wait to see the outcome of the special counsel investigation, but noted that a call for impeachment "would have to be bipartisan, and the evidence would have to be so conclusive."

Resistance by party leaders to embracing an impeachment effort could cause a significant backlash among the party's restive liberal flank.

According to a Washington Post-Schar School poll Tuesday of voters in battleground districts, nearly two-thirds of those who voted for Democratic House candidates want Congress to begin impeachment proceedings that could lead to Trump's removal from office.

But party leaders said they need to be judicious about using new committee gavels to strike Trump - knowing that their actions could energize an angry Republican base if they beat him up indiscriminately.

"We have to be as strategic and methodical as we possibly can," said one senior Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy. "If subpoenas go flying, and lawsuits go flying, you're in the mud with [Trump] - and that's what he wants."

Democrats are expected to focus their scrutiny on areas in which they believe Trump's actions are demonstrably unethical or unconstitutional and on administrative decisions that affect people's security and livelihoods, officials said.

"Where people go wrong is in seeing oversight in this really small prism of 'How are you going to go after Donald Trump?' That's not it at all," said Ashley Etienne, a spokeswoman for Pelosi, who is expected to be elected House speaker.

"We're going to run two lanes: protecting and defending the Constitution and addressing the things we're fighting for, like access to health care and the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs," she said.

The House Judiciary Committee will likely take the lead on health care, beginning with an investigation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions's refusal to defend the Obama-era health-care law against a lawsuit from Republican-led states.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who is set to become chairman next year, tweeted late Tuesday: "@realDonaldTrump may not like it, but he and his administration will be held accountable to our laws and to the American people."

Meanwhile, Democrats on the Education and Workforce Committee are poised to examine Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's efforts to relax regulations for for-profit colleges and limit student loan forgiveness.

Democrats believe both issues will resonate with voters struggling to meet mounting costs of health care and higher education, regardless of party.

Party leaders are also eager to probe Trump's finances - beginning with his tax returns, which he has refused to release, unlike his predecessors.

Presumptive Democratic Ways and Means chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., has said he intends to obtain them once in power, using a 1924 law that gives heads of the congressional tax-writing committees the right to request any person's tax returns. The panel could then make them public with a simple majority vote.

Trump and other conservatives have suggested the White House might fight any effort by Democrats to obtain his tax returns, setting up a possible constitutional challenge that tests a 96-year-old law.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who is fiercely loyal to Trump, recently told the New York Times he would review any request from lawmakers with the relevant officials at the Treasury Department.

Trump could also try to exert executive privilege over the material in a way that attempts to block it from being revealed.

Separately, presumptive House Financial Services Committee chairman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., and presumed House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., could seek to unearth other information regarding Trump's holdings.

Waters has requested - and as the committee head could subpoena - records that could dislodge closely held details of Deutsche Bank's relationship with the Trump Organization.

The German bank lent Trump more than $400 million during a decade-long real estate buying spree that began in 2005, largely through its private wealth management office, not the commercial banking division that typically handles real estate.

Schiff has also pledged to scrutinize "serious and credible allegations" that Russians may have laundered money through Trump's businesses, potentially giving the Kremlin leverage over the president.

And he plans to investigate Russian election meddling more fiercely than Republicans, whom Schiff accused of using the intelligence panel to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller's probe.

How intently Democrats focus on Russia depends in large part on how Mueller's probe - with which they have committed not to interfere - advances between now and January.

On the Intelligence Committee, Schiff wants to scrutinize Trump's efforts to strike a nuclear deal with North Korea and the administration's willingness to cut deals with China, despite the national security threats the country poses.

Democrats on his panel also plan to embark on a deep probe of Saudi Arabia and the Oct. 2 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which could further complicate Trump's efforts to pursue lucrative weapons deals with the kingdom.

On the Judiciary Committee, Nadler is expected to dedicate attention to the rise of white supremacy and the proliferation of firearms - national debates that have been exacerbated by deadly shootings at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last month and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February.

Nadler also recently told the New York Times that he would scrutinize the FBI's review of sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, which Democrats have complained was too limited.

To dig into Trump's allegiances abroad, Democrats may scrutinize Trump's hotel in downtown Washington - and the foreign clients who frequent it.

Foreign dignitaries from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the Philippines and elsewhere have patronized the hotel. Such transactions have prompted two lawsuits alleging that Trump is violating the Constitution's prohibition on presidents taking "emoluments," or payments, from foreign states.

Such a probe would likely fall to the Oversight Committee, where incoming chairman Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., already plans to probe the "zero tolerance" policy that caused the detention of thousands of migrant children separated from their families while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, and the administration's intention to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census.

The panel is also planning a broad investigation of the White House's security clearance process, after Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and former staff secretary Rob Porter were revealed to be operating without full clearances.

The panel wants to balance those probes with renewed attention to the Trump administration's widely criticized response to Puerto Rico in the aftermath Hurricane Maria, and the continuing water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Though panel Democrats have not yet determined how many investigations they will launch at the start of the year, any number would be "going up from zero," one Democratic committee staffer said, complaining that "literally not one document, not subpoena was issued to the White House" by Republicans.

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