Battle Brewing on Hill Over Trump's Business Interests

Battle Brewing on Hill Over Trump's Business Interests
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Democrats are already calling for hearings and investigations into Donald Trump’s expansive business empire and potential conflicts of interest as he prepares to take office, but Republicans are urging caution, pledging to give Trump time to sort out his commercial enterprises and separate them from his governance.

It’s an early round of what’s likely to be an ongoing battle on Capitol Hill during the Trump administration: Democrats have accused Republicans of failing to promote proper oversight, while Republicans are giving Trump the benefit of the doubt as they focus on their legislative agenda.

In past administrations, congressional oversight has been less rigorous when the party in the majority also controls the White House.

“The reality is that when the president and the investigative committees are aligned in the same party, they tend to under investigate, and when they’re in different parties, they tend to over investigate,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, a Republican who chaired the House Committee on Oversight and Government during George W. Bush’s presidency. “That’s been true for 40 years. I don’t expect that to change.”

Democrats have wasted little time in trying to hold their GOP colleagues’ feet to the fire. Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the oversight committee, sent a letter to the current chairman, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, less than a week after the election calling for an investigation into Trump’s business and the blind trust he planned to set up with his children at the helm. Cummings has also sent letters to incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Vice President-elect Mike Pence requesting information and documents, and asked the Government Accountability Office to examine the Trump transition.

On Monday, all Democratic members of the committee sent another letter listing some of their concerns -- including reports about the global scope of his business and potential conflicts with foreign governments; Trump’s proposal to have his children, who serve as key advisers to the president-elect, run his company; and a report in the New York Times that Trump brought up the impact a wind farm could have on his golf course in Scotland with a British politician.

“Although you have stated publicly that you will hold Mr. Trump to the same standards as President Obama and Secretary Clinton, you have not responded to Ranking Member Cummings’ letter, and you have not taken steps to conduct basic oversight of these unprecedented challenges,” Democrats wrote to Chaffetz.

But Chaffetz, who declined to be interviewed for this article, and many other Republicans on Capitol Hill have pushed back at the notion they should be investigating Trump during the transition.

“Give him a chance -- he hasn’t even been sworn in yet,” Chaffetz said on Fox News Tuesday. “It’s pretty hard to criticize him or suggest there should be an investigation by Congress when he hasn’t even been sworn in yet.

“When we get to Jan. 20 and he’s sworn in and he is the president of the United States, things are different than while he is now, still, a private citizen." 

Davis, the former committee chairman, warned Democrats about getting ahead of themselves in going after Trump this quickly. He called the Times report on Trump’s golf course in Scotland “trivial” and suggested Democrats pick their battles.

“There will be plenty of opportunities,” Davis said. “We’ve seen Republicans stumble by over investigating. You lose credibility. My advice to Democrats is pick your shots carefully. You don’t need to throw the kitchen sink."

Democrats have shown no signs of heeding Davis’s advice and have made clear that they expect to continuously push for investigations into Trump -- particularly after Republicans so forcefully investigated both President Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. One former senior Republican committee staffer, who served during the Bush administration, said it is “not a fun gig when you’re policing your own party.”

“No matter how much you do, no matter what you do, you’re doing too much or you’re not doing enough depending on who’s grading you,” the staffer, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about his own party, told RCP.

For example, the former staffer cited a special committee created to investigate the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, led by Davis, who chaired the oversight committee at the time. Congressional Republicans received pressure on both ends. Democrats refused to appoint any members to the committee, with Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi suggesting Republicans would “whitewash” the investigation. But the staffer also said the pressure from the White House to make the investigation more about state and local issues rather than “the federal government’s incompetence was intense."

Former Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, the top Democrat on the oversight committee under both President Bill Clinton and Bush, said his first Republican counterpart, Rep. Dan Burton, acted as though there wasn’t “an allegation too small” to look into under Clinton, but also “wasn’t a scandal too big for them to ignore” under Bush.

For now, most Republicans are preaching caution and patience. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California said Tuesday that “oversight is oversight,” and that he thought committee members should have “blinders” on when it comes to being willing to investigate Trump. But, echoing Chaffetz, he also said that Trump hasn’t taken office yet, and thus there is little need for immediate investigations.

“Remind me, is he sworn in yet?” McCarthy asked reporters Tuesday after questions about potential conflicts of interest for Trump. “But now the Democrats already want to investigate him before he’s even sworn in.”

McCarthy then praised Don McGahn, a seasoned Washington lawyer Trump tapped to be White House counsel. McCarthy and other Republicans argued that given time, McGahn would be able to sort out Trump’s business empire in a way that would prevent any conflict of interest.

But given the complex nature of Trump’s business empire and its foreign interests, Democrats will likely push for information even if he takes significant steps to separate himself from the business after taking office. Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, sent a letter last week to the director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics requesting information on how he plans to handle potential interest conflicts from Trump’s business, particularly due to the involvement of his children.

Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the Republican chairman of that committee, said he was happy to give Trump and his team time to sort out his business enterprises and how to avoid conflicts of interest, but also downplayed how much of an issue it could potentially become.

“American voters understood they are electing somebody with vast holdings around the world, and it’s going to be a challenge to figure out how to prevent those conflicts of interest, but I’m sure he and his team are looking at that very closely,” Johnson said.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, chairman of the Finance Committee, said Trump would inevitably need to come to the conclusion that he should fully separate himself from his business interests, but that he didn’t think there needed to be congressional hearings on the matter, adding, “We’ll see how he does it.”

“I don’t know how he’s going to do it; he’s got interests everywhere,” Hatch said. “It’s quite an interesting thing to have a president that’s been as successful as he has."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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