With several weeks to go before the new Congress is seated, House Democrats have eagerly announced plans to begin a spate of investigations into the White House on a variety of topics — including one of Trump’s executive decisions that followed precedent set by former President Barack Obama.
The slew of potential probes comes as new polling indicates that Democrats run the risk of alienating moderate voters by overplaying their hand as they retake committee gavels for the first time in eight years.
The incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., on Monday vowed to look into the White House’s refusal to fully defend the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as ObamaCare, in court against a lawsuit by 20 states.
Justice Department lawyers argue that because a tax penalty is no longer imposed on those who fail to obtain health insurance, the legal justification that the Supreme Court used to uphold ObamaCare’s constitutionality — Congress’ taxing power — no longer holds.
“In the next Congress, this committee expects to examine the department’s refusal to defend a duly enacted federal statute, the abrupt resignation of veteran department employees and an apparent determination by this administration to undermine affordable healthcare coverage for millions of Americans,” Nadler said in a statement.
But Trump’s Justice Department, in choosing not to defend a law in court that it believed was unconstitutional, was following in the footsteps of the previous administration. 2011, the Obama DOJ announced it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
Meanwhile, House Oversight Committee Democrats said Tuesday they will also investigate Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner’s use of private email accounts for official White House business, re-launching a 2017 probe into whether Trump administration officials are complying with the Presidential Record Act.
Committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who is expected to become chairman at the beginning of the 116th Congress in January, announced that he wants more information about Ivanka’s use of a personal email account while conducting official administration business one day after a Washington Post report highlighted White House officials’ apparent unease about the issue.
“We launched a bipartisan investigation last year into White House officials’ use of private email accounts for official business, but the White House never gave us the information we requested,” Cummings said in a statement to Fox News. “We need those documents to ensure that Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and other officials are complying with federal records laws and there is a complete record of the activities of this Administration.”
“They weren’t classified like Hillary Clinton’s, they weren’t deleted like Hillary Clinton’s.”
But there were early signs that Democrats may be overplaying their hand. In a statement to Fox News, Peter Mirijanian, the spokesperson for Trump’s ethics lawyer Abbe Lowell, emphasized several key distinctions to the Hillary Clinton email scandal that engulfed the 2016 presidential campaign.
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“To address misinformation being peddled about Ms. Trump’s personal email, she did not create a private server in her house or office, there was never classified information transmitted, the account was never transferred or housed at Trump Organization, no emails were ever deleted, and the emails have been retained in the official account in conformity with records preservation laws and rules,” Mirijanian said.
He added: “When concerns were raised in the press 14 months ago, Ms. Trump reviewed and verified her email use with White House Counsel and explained the issue to congressional leaders.” Mirijanian told the Post that Trump had used a personal account prior to being briefed on ethics rules.
President Trump also made that argument in remarks to reporters outside the White House on Tuesday, saying the Post’s story was “fake news” and that his daughter had complied with the law and, unlike Clinton, had not deleted tens of thousands of emails — after receiving a subpoenea or otherwise.
“They weren’t classified like Hillary Clinton’s, they weren’t deleted like Hillary Clinton’s; she wasn’t doing anything to hide her emails,” Trump said. “They’re all in presidential records. … There was no servers in the basement, like Hillary Clinton had. You’re talking about fake news.”
While Special Counsel Robert Mueller is leading the investigation into any potential illegal collusion between Trump officials and the Russian government, House and Senate Democrats have indicated they are eager to explore peripheral issues. For example, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., requested on Tuesday that DOJ watchdog Michael E. Horowitz probe whether there were any “unlawful or improper communications” between new Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and the Trump White House.
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Whitaker previously served as chief of staff to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and had open lines of communications with the administration.
Schumer particularly expressed an interest in whether Whitaker had shared any “confidential grand jury or investigative information from the Special Counsel investigation or any criminal investigation” with the Trump White House.
And last week, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in an interview with “Axios on HBO” that he and his colleagues will employ committee subpoena powers — which are backed by the legal threat of contempt of Congress — to conduct the triple-threaded inquiry into Trump’s possible use of the “instruments of state power to punish the press,” as well as potential money laundering involving the Trump Organization in Russia. (Trump has since derided Schiff as “little Adam Schitt.”)
Specifically, Schiff charged that Trump “was secretly meeting with the postmaster [general] in an effort to browbeat” her into “raising postal rates on Amazon,” whose founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, separately owns The Washington Post.
“This appears to be an effort by the president to use the instruments of state power to punish Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post,” Schiff said in the interview.
Schiff also raised the possibility that the Trump administration’s opposition to AT&T’s $85 billion takeover of Time Warner on antitrust grounds may have been motivated by the president’s animus toward CNN, whose parent company is Time Warner. Trump frequently claims that CNN speads “fake news” and that when it does so, it is acting as the “enemy of the people.”
“We don’t know, for example, whether the effort to hold up the merger of the parent of CNN was a concern over antitrust, or whether this was an effort merely to punish CNN,” Schiff said.
“It is very squarely within our responsibility to find out,” Schiff said.
But former GOP Judiciary Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, who is now a Fox News contributor, told Politico in October that Cummings and Schiff shouldn’t get their hopes up.
“If [North Carolina Rep.] Mark Meadows and [Ohio Rep.] Jim Jordan can’t get documents out of the White House, I don’t know why Elijah Cummings and the Democrats think they’ll do any better,” Chaffetz said.
Fox News’ Brooke Singman contributed to this report.