President Trump won’t be the only high-profile target on House Democrats’ investigative agenda when the new Congress is seated in January, with top officials in his Cabinet also expected to face a torrent of scrutiny.
Trump’s Cabinet has seen several shakeups this year — including the departures of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, embattled Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. But several controversial figures remain. And Cabinet officials generally are easier for Congress to investigate than senior White House officials and the president, who can assert executive privilege to presumptively shield both his communications and deliberative processes from review.
House Democrats have signaled a particular interest in probing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Housing and Urban Development head Ben Carson. Other possible officials to go under the microscope include Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, though Trump reportedly has indicated she may leave the administration, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos
DeVos, who has reportedly received round-the-clock protection from the U.S. Marshals after being accosted last year, was once called the “most hated Cabinet secretary” by “60 Minutes” host Lesley Stahl.
A wealthy Republican donor with limited education experience, DeVos was confirmed by a 51-50 vote in the Senate — a result ensured only by Vice President Pence’s tiebreaking vote, which marked the first time in history a vice president had to vote to confirm a Cabinet official.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who is slated to chair an appropriations subcommittee that handles education funding, has criticized Devos on everything from her handling of student loan debt to her department’s guidance on campus sexual assault policy. She has vowed to “hold Secretary DeVos accountable for her agency’s failure to uphold federal protections for our students.”
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Chief among Democrats’ objections are DeVos’ efforts to enact regulatory rollbacks favorable to major providers of student loans, including Navient and FedLoan Servicing, that DeVos has said are aimed at reducing confusion and inefficiencies in the student loan process.
Democrats have also opposed DeVos’ narrowing of the definition of fraud in the student loan context, which conservatives have argued was an important step in reducing potentially frivolous litigation that would ultimately result in big-digit judgments that come out of taxpayers’ pockets.
Rep. Mark Takano, who is slated to chair the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, told Politico that he wants “to examine the extent to which her rollbacks of regulations negatively impact veterans,” who enroll at for-profit colleges at high rates.
And Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., who is expected to chair the House Financial Services committee, has accused DeVos of waging a “full-on attack on civil rights protections for students—particularly students of color, students with disabilities, transgender students, and survivors of sexual assault.”
At a contentious hearing with DeVos in March, DeLauro charged that “despite your statements all morning about supporting states’ rights, what your office has done, you’ve issued a declaration to pre-empt state regulations on companies that collect student loans.”
In February, DeVos issued a notice effectively saying states have no legal authority to regulate such lenders, who are facing several lawsuits from state attorneys general and investigations by various agencies.
More recently, DeVos has moved to block efforts by states and federal regulators to obtain information about student loans, citing federal privacy laws. Legal challenges concerning that effort are ongoing, with one judge ruling that the Education Department couldn’t assert those privacy protections to hide from discovery requests.
Democrats have also raised concerns about DeVos’ new proposed guidance for how campuses should handle sexual assault claims, which Republicans have long claimed are unfair to students accused of misconduct.
“Every survivor of sexual violence must be taken seriously, and every student accused of sexual misconduct must know that guilt is not predetermined,” DeVos said in a statement announcing the proposal, which would provide the accused the right to question his or her accuser. The two could communicate through an intermediary and would not need to be in the same room.
But DeLauro, again, was unconvinced: “In the ongoing battle to eradicate sexual assault from college campuses, Secretary Betsy DeVos is on the side of those accused rather than the victims,” she said in a statement earlier this month.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke
Zinke, a former Montana congressman and U.S. Navy SEAL who served in Iraq and Bosnia, has come under criticism for his alleged misconduct as interior secretary, centering on a real estate deal in his home state involving a foundation he created and the chairman of the energy giant Halliburton that does business with Interior.
Multiple media reports have indicated the Interior Department’s watchdog, Inspector General Mary Kendall, has referred that probe to the Justice Department for possible criminal charges.
Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly, who is expected to lead the House Oversight Government Operations Subcommittee, told Politico that “Zinke is one the most ethically challenged members of the Cabinet and maybe one of the most ethically challenged secretaries of the Interior we’ve had in living memory.”
“[There’s] rich material here to look into his behavior and his fitness for continued service in the office,” Connolly added.
The 57-year-old Zinke also raised ethical concerns when he blocked two Connecticut tribes from opening a casino and redrew boundaries to shrink a Utah national monument. Kendall’s team cleared Zinke in a separate probe into his air travel, faulted him for violating department regulations when he allowed his wife to ride in government vehicles, and said there were insufficient records to determine whether Zinke’s staff re-assignments broke policy.
Zinke has also been inundated with criticism even for his legally above-board policy decisions and statements. As head of the Interior, Zinke has reduced the boundaries protecting some national monuments to open more land to drilling and mining operations, angering some in his home state of Montana. Last week, he blamed “radical environmentalists” for the deadly California wildfires that have left dozens dead, saying they’d rather “burn down the entire forest than cut a single tree.”
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., the probable incoming chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, said it “can’t be dismissed as merely a coincidence” that Zinke reportedly sought to replace Kendall with a political appointee shortly after the DOJ referral.
Grijalva made clear on Friday he’s going after Zinke in a USA Today op-ed calling for his resignation, prompting a fiery response from the secretary.
But it remains a possibility that Zinke, like former EPA head Pruitt, might step aside rather than face Democrat-led investigations. Citing several sources familiar with his discussions, Politico reported earlier this month that Zinke plans to resign before the end of the year.
“It’s laughably false and belongs in The Onion,” the Interior’s press office wrote on Twitter concerning the report.
President Trump indicated to reporters at a post-Election Day White House press conference on Nov. 7 that Zinke’s fate was in doubt.
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“We’re looking at that, and I do want to study whatever is being said,” Trump said. “I think he’s doing an excellent job, but we will take a look at that, and we’ll probably have an idea on that in about a week.”
But two days later, Trump told reporters he had no immediate plans to fire Zinke. “No, I’m going to look into any complaints,” he said. At a roundtable discussion in Biloxi, Miss., on Monday evening, Trump said he’s still thinking of potentially changing some Cabinet positions, but added that he’d be very happy if he left his Cabinet as it is now.
For his part, Zinke wrote on Twitter after Election Day that he was “looking forward” to working with new members of Congress in January.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson
Carson, a former neurosurgeon who challenged Trump for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, is most dogged by ethical complaints concerning his allegedly excessive spending at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Earlier this year, HUD announced it would cancel an order for a $31,561 dining set purchased for a costly makeover of Carson’s office after a complaint by Helen Foster, HUD’s former chief administrative officer.
Foster said she faced retaliation for objection to the cost of the set, saying that $5,000 was the statutory max. The New York Times first reported on the decision, made in late 2017 — shortly after the White House moved to cut various HUD programs for low-income individuals.
A HUD spokesperson told The Times that Carson “didn’t know the table had been purchased” — a claim that Democrats are sure to probe in January. House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., already demanded that HUD turn over all documents related to the purchase earlier this year, but a Democrat-led probe would likely be more expansive and could include subpoenas for additional information and testimony by more officials at HUD.
In something of an investigative crossover twist, an email sent by Carson on Oct. 12 apparently described the plan to replace Kendall after she referred her investigation of Zinke to the DOJ.
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In his email, Carson wrote that assistant secretary for administration Suzanne Israel Tufts was leaving to replace Kendall as the Interior Department’s watchdog — an assertion the White House quickly called “false.” House Democrats have promised to determine how exactly Carson got the idea that Kendall would depart.
Carson has taken criticism for arguing for advocating rent reforms that he says will help boost people out of poverty. Saying ”$50 a month is not a lot of skin the game,” Carson has moved to boost the minimum rent contribution from poor people receiving government housing benefits from $50 to $150.
He has also sought to have residents pay a larger percentage of their income towards rent, and move income verification checks from once a year to once every three years — a change he says will encourage people to work more.
“The real meat of the rent reform is things like making the assessment of income every three years instead of one year so that people aren’t discouraged from taking a raise,” Carson said this summer. “People aren’t discouraged from bringing another income earner in or getting married, things like that. Those are the things that have kept people chronically in poverty.”
But backlash has been severe, with Democrats countering that more work requirements and higher rent costs would drive more people into homelessness.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen
Nielsen has been front-and-center in recent days, after members of the leading migrant caravan from Central America attempted to storm the port of entry at San Ysidro, Calif., on Sunday. During the episode, U.S. Border Patrol authorities used tear gas to disperse the migrants, including several who threw what appeared to be rocks across the border.
At a rally late Monday in Mississippi, Trump seemingly sounded a note of confidence in Nielsen’s work overseeing border security efforts, which resulted in dozens of arrests. No members of the caravan made it into the U.S. without being apprehended, according to U.S. officials.
“Are we doing OK on the border, folks?” Trump said to cheers of “Build that wall.”
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“We’re not going to have it — you’ve got to come into our country legally,” the president added. “We have a lot of [the wall] built, and it’s going up. And the rest of it — it’s pretty nasty looking wire, isn’t it? We’re doing well.”
In between his two Mississippi rallies, Trump attended a roundtable with law enforcement leaders on his bipartisan criminal justice reform effort. There, he charged that some migrants — whom he identified as “grabbers” — were essentially using children as human shields at the border.
After the president instituted a zero-tolerance policy that all illegal immigrants should be referred for criminal prosecution, administration officials argued that the Flores consent decree legally prevented them from keeping adults and children in custody together for more than two weeks. That decree, made amid litigation during former President Bill Clinton’s administration, ostensibly limits the amount of time that federal authorities can detain illegal immigrant minors who are caught along with their parents.
But amid fierce criticism against both the White House and Nielsen, Trump signed an executive order this summer barring family separations at the border, although it remains subject to legal challenges. Democrats have called for investigations into the family separations, as well as for Nielsen’s resignation amid a report by the DHS Office of Inspector General finding various possible deficiencies in the agency’s handling of the matter.
If Nielsen remains “Donald Trump’s puppet, continues to flout the law, lie to Congress and ignore the plight of these children in the face of these findings,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said in October. Thompson is set to chair the House Homeland Security committee.
In a statement late Monday, Nielsen backed up Trump’s comments about migrants, just as DHS earlier supported Trump’s remarks that the caravan contained hundreds of criminals.
But in an exclusive interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” earlier this month, Trump said he wanted to see more from Nielsen.
“Well, I like her a lot. I respect her a lot,” Trump said, referring to Nielsen. “She’s very smart. I want her to get much tougher and we’ll see what happens there. But I want to be extremely tough. … I like her very much, I respect her very much, I’d like her to be much tougher on the border — much tougher, period.”
He added there’s a “chance” that Nielsen, who was accosted in a restaurant this summer by far-left progressive activists, will continue in her role.
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross
House Democrats have signaled their intent to scrutinize Ross’ finances, as well as his responses to federally required disclosure forms and his possible ties to Chinese and Russian interests.
In a letter this summer, several leading Democrats, including likely incoming Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., requested that a government watchdog look into Ross’ decision to short Navigator Holdings in October 2017, just days after he became aware that The New York Times planned to publish a report on his investments with the company.
On Nov. 5, 2017, The Times published a story titled, “Commerce Secretary’s Offshore Ties to Putin ‘Cronies,'” which linked Navigator Holdings to Russian President Vladimir Putin and a Russian oligarch.
“Secretary Ross’ holdings in Navigator, his sale of those holdings, and his lack of transparency with regard to those holdings, are especially troubling given that he is responsible for promoting the interests of U.S. companies and for implementing sanctions against Russia,” the Democrats wrote.
They also questioned whether Ross had properly divested himself of his interest in companies co-owned by the Chinese government and other companies that he can influence — as he said he would during his confirmation hearings — or whether he had simply distributed his holdings among his family members.
Separately, Democrats have sought to question Ross on the Trump administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, though the Supreme Court has blocked those efforts in connection with several lawsuits.
Ross had claimed in March, when the decision to add the citizenship question was announced, that he considered adding it after a request to do so last December from the Justice Department.
However, in October, Justice Department lawyers filed a new document in which Ross said he now remembered speaking with former senior White House adviser Steve Bannon in spring 2017 about adding the question.
That apparent inconsistency could provide fuel for Democrats’ efforts to highlight the citizenship issue more broadly.
Democrats claim a citizenship question would scare illegal immigrants and lead many to avoid participating in the census. Because the number of congressional seats awarded to each district in the House of Representatives is currently determined by population totals provided by census results — citizens and noncitizens — Democrats fear the Trump administration’s change will dramatically cut into their representation in Congress.
But late Monday, Bloomberg, citing three people familiar with Trump’s thinking, reported that despite these potential headaches and widespread speculation, the president has no plans to replace either Ross or Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
If accurate, the news would mark something of a bailout for Ross, who himself helped Trump avoid a personal bankruptcy in Atlantic City, N.J., in the 1990s. It was evident even decades later that the president hasn’t forgotten Ross’ investing prowess.
“This guy knows how to make money, folks,” Trump said at a rally in 2016 after picking Ross for the top Commerce job. “I put on a killer.”
Fox News’ Samuel Chamberlain, Dom Callicchio, Bret Baier and Paulina Dedaj contributed to this report.