By Kurt Bardella
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-M.D., the soon-to-be chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is getting a jump on the new year. A few days before Christmas, Cummings sent 51 letters to the White House, multiple federal agencies and the Trump administration requesting full compliance with the document requests by January 11, 2019. These letters are the first formal looks at what type of agenda Cummings and House Democrats will pursue when they officially take control of the committee — and majority — on January 3.
Cummings is casting a wide, but deliberate net; Many of the documents he is pursuing were asked for by House Republicans as well. Trump’s defenders in Congress will find it harder to label Cummings a purely partisan investigator if his first investigations are similar to those pursued by his colleagues across the aisle. The major difference is if the Trump administration ignores these requests, Cummings, unlike his Republican predecessor, will presumably issue subpoenas to get to the truth.
While it is impossible to know what will come out of these requests, the letters offer some clues about what Trump officials can expect in 2019.
In a request that went to the entire Cabinet, Cummings writes, “I am writing to request that you fully comply with the Committee’s previous bipartisan request for documents regarding the agency’s compliance with whistleblower protection laws, a set forth in the letter from Rep. Mark Meadows and Rep. Gerald E. Connelly…on February 7, 2017. I intend to continue this investigation in the next Congress.” The goal of this request is to expose efforts by the Trump administration to illegally retaliate against whistleblowers willing to sound the alarm on misconduct.
In his letter to FEMA Administrator William Long, Cummings notes, “more than a year ago, on October 11, 2017, Chairman Trey Gowdy and Rep. Cummings sent a bipartisan request to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)” seeking “documents or communications received, prepared, or sent” related to the preparation and response to hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The committee’s investigation into the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina resulted in devastating hearings and allegations of misconduct. The fallout is now an indelible part of Bush’s legacy, and a similar outcome is certainly possible here, depending on what the committee finds.
The crisis at the southwestern border will also likely be an issue the committee will investigate. Writing to the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice and Department of Health and Human Services, Cummings cites a July 5, 2018 letter sent by Rep. Mark Meadows requesting documents related to the administration’s family separation policy. In the wake of a 7-year-old girland8-year-old boy dying in Border Patrol custody, this investigation could have major consequences as the committee examines the treatment of immigrant families.
In a government-wide request, Cummings also requested compliance with bipartisan letters sent on September 25, 2017 and October 20, 2017 regarding the federal government’s compliance with the Federal Records Act. This is clearly related to recent revelations of private email use by Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Cummings specifically addresses this issue in his letter to White House counsel Pat Cipollone.
The ghost of Scott Pruitt also returns with a request to the EPA’s acting administrator Andrew Wheeler for the documents that were initially requested by Gowdy and Cummings back in April of 2018. Pruitt’s laundry list of controversies were mostly exposed through investigative reporting by the media. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions regarding Pruitt’s conduct while leading the EPA as well as how the agency is currently functioning.
Abuses of power and unethical conduct don’t happen in a vacuum, they are symptoms of much broader and systemic issues. Determining who knew what, when they knew, who they told and whether concerns about Pruitt’s conduct were shared with the White House can shed light on how the administration has dealt with other questionable conduct from senior officials.
John Kelly might be out the door, butthe White House’s security clearance process — which he helped oversee — is something he and the White House may yet have to answer for. This is an area where you could see the limits of executive privilege tested.
And in what could be one of the most consequential areas of inquiry, Cummings sent a document request to the Trump Organization demanding that it “fully comply with the Committee’s previous bipartisan request for documents regarding the Trump Organization’s process of identifying payments from foreign governments and foreign-government controlled entities, as set forth in the letter on April 21, 2017.” In 2017, Trump said attempts by special counsel Robert Mueller to investigate Trump and his family’s business and finances would be crossing a “red line.” Will Trump extend that same mindset to Congress and House Democrats?
As someone who spent five years working at the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, I can tell you that subpoenas often quickly follow requests for voluntary compliance is a subpoena. These letters are Cummings’ way of telling Trump, “the ball is in your court.” And how the president and his administration responds to the January 11 deadline will say a lot about what we can expect in 2019. The only real options here are cooperation or confrontation. If we know anything about Trump, it’s that he oftentimes favors the latter.
Kurt Bardella is a political commentator and former spokesperson for Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee and Breitbart News.
This article was first published on NBC News' Think. Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.