Any honeymoon President Trump expects after his second State of the Union address Tuesday is proving to be short lived, as newly-empowered House investigators make their first significant moves to scrutinize his administration and advance the Mueller investigation.
Barely 12 hours after the president’s admonition against “ridiculous partisan investigations” in his speech, the Democrat-led House Intelligence Committee voted Wednesday morning to send thousands of pages of materials to the special counsel related to their own year-long Russia investigation.
The Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, is readying what would be the first congressional subpoena of a high-ranking Trump official, as the panel that would initiate impeachment proceedings against Trump prepares to grill the acting attorney general on Friday.
And the House Oversight Committee, with broad jurisdiction to investigate Trump, his businesses and the conduct of administration officials, will hear testimony on what one witness calls an “ethics crisis” in the Trump administration that “jeopardizes not only public trust in government but also national security.”
Those and other committees this week will also conduct oversight hearings on climate change, gun violence, the president’s tax returns, the impact of the government shutdown, and the administration’s Mideast and family separation policies.
The timing of these House hearings is more coincidence than by design. The Intelligence Committee, for instance, just held its first meeting Wednesday because Republicans only appointed their members last week. And Trump’s State of the Union was originally meant to be two weeks earlier, delayed because of a government shutdown that largely crowded out the House agenda for its first month.
But a president who just last week mused “no venue that can compete with the history, tradition and importance of the House Chamber” is now facing head-on what it means to have a co-equal branch of government in the hands of his political opponents.
“When he ran, [the president] should’ve known that we are all under scrutiny, and that we all have to be accountable,” House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said Wednesday morning. “It’s a new day.”
As promised, Democrats on the Intelligence Committee in one of their first acts voted to send special counsel Robert Mueller and his team the full, unredacted transcripts of more than 50 witness interviews that the panel conducted in 2017 and 2018 for its Russia probe. Republicans who led the committee in the last Congress blocked Democrats’ attempt to do so last September.
Democrats say that giving Mueller’s team access to the transcripts could at the very least allow them to determine whether perjury charges are warranted against some of the former Trump campaign and administration officials who appeared before the committee, including Steve Bannon, Hope Hicks, Corey Lewandowski and the president’s son and son-in-law, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner.
Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., told NBC News last week that it was his understanding that Mueller’s team has already had access “to the substance of the transcripts,” but would only be able to act on any leads they provided after the committee vote.
Republicans under former Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., ended the committee’s Russia probe last March, concluding based on their work that while some Trump campaign officials took “ill-advised” meetings with Russians, there was no evidence of collusion between both sides to affect the outcome of the election.
Schiff says he intends to continue pursuing leads the GOP cut off, especially on potential financial leverage the Kremlin may have had over Trump.
A spokesman for Nunes, who remains the panel’s top Republican, preemptively accused Democrats of prolonging an investigation for political benefit.
“The Democrats have made it clear their overriding purpose in this committee is to investigate every aspect imaginable of Trump’s life, whether it’s in our jurisdiction or not, in hopes of finding something to serve as a basis for impeachment,” the spokesman, Jack Langer, said. “Of course, it seems unnecessary since they claimed two years ago to already have more than circumstantial evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.”
The Judiciary Committee on Wednesday was holding the first House hearing on gun violence in nearly a decade, as it considers new legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases.
But the first real sparring with the GOP came in response to Chairman Jerry Nadler’s, D-N.Y., announcement Tuesday that he would initiate the subpoena process ahead of acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker’s scheduled appearance Friday. Nadler said in a statement that he hopes a subpoena is not required to compel testimony, but called it a prudent step given the track record of Trump administration officials appearing before Congress.
“For the first two years of the Trump Administration, Congress allowed government witnesses to dodge uncomfortable questions. That era is over,” he said. “If he appears on time and ready to answer [our] questions, the subpoena will be entirely unnecessary.”
Republicans who had only a week ago praised Nadler for promising a more transparent subpoena process blasted the move. Ranking Member Doug Collins of Georgia said subpoenaing witnesses who were appearing voluntarily would be “setting a dangerous precedent.”
Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for the House Oversight Committee under former Republican Chairman Darrel Issa, said Nadler’s move was an indication of the very new environment the Trump administration now faces with Democrats in control of key committees.
“Now, it’s not just what happens the day of the hearing and what they say under oath. It’s how does the information that the committees can obtain afterwards line up to what they said, and can it be used against them,” he said. “The stakes are now much higher.”
No current administration officials will appear before the Oversight Committee this week. A scheduled public hearing with Cohen has been indefinitely postponed, while Cohen’s private interview before the Intelligence Committee was just rescheduled Wednesday for Feb. 28.
But Walter Schaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, will say in testimony submitted in advance of a hearing Wednesday that Trump “has not even tried” to address potential conflicts of interest between his role as president and his private businesses — underscoring what is expected to be a main area of focus for the committee.
“The momentum of four decades of ethics reform came to an abrupt halt on January 11, 2017,” Schaub will say. “The integrity of a nation is at stake.”
The Oversight Committee features some of each party’s fiercest partisans, including several new high-profile Democrats.
“A lot of what we need to do is be aggressive in making up for the lack of oversight that has been going on in the last two years,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D–N.Y., told NBC.