WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Armed with subpoenas and a list of grievances, a handful of lawmakers will soon be leading investigations likely to make President Donald Trump’s life a lot tougher, now that Democrats have won a U.S. House of Representatives majority.
Wielding the powers that come with controlling House committees, Democrats can demand to see Trump’s long-hidden tax returns, investigate possible conflicts of interest from his business empire and dig into any evidence of collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign team in the 2016 election.
Hours after Democrats captured control of the House, Trump fired back on Twitter early on Wednesday that House probes targeting him could be countered by investigations of Democrats by the Senate, which remains in Republican hands.
“If the Democrats think they are going to waste Taxpayer Money investigating us at the House level, then we will likewise be forced to consider investigating them for all of the leaks of Classified Information, and much else, at the Senate level. Two can play that game!” the president tweeted.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell declined to comment on Trump’s tweet but said “presidential harassment” by Democrats could backfire on them by enhancing the president’s popularity, as happened in the 1990s when Republicans impeached former President Bill Clinton.
“That might not be a smart strategy,” McConnell said at a news conference.
The remarks by Trump and McConnell came after Democrats said Republican lawmakers will no longer be able to protect Trump from a watchful Congress.
“The American people have demanded accountability from their government,” Representative Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat poised to become chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said on Twitter.
Trump “may not like it, but he and his administration will be held accountable to our laws and to the American people.”
The confrontational tone on both sides may preview what’s to come over the next two years as Democrats turn the investigative microscope on Trump, who has no experience as president with a chamber of the U.S. Congress being under his opponents’ control.
Nadler, once slammed by Trump as “one of the most egregious hacks in contemporary politics,” is among four senior Democrats who have clashed with Trump in the past and who will take over key House committees when the new Congress convenes in January.
The others are Elijah Cummings at the House Oversight Committee; Adam Schiff of the Intelligence Committee, slammed by Trump as “sleazy;” and Maxine Waters at the Financial Services Committee, whom Trump has called “extraordinarily low IQ.”
Chairing these committees - where they are currently the highest-ranking Democrats - will give these Democrats the power to demand documents and testimony from White House officials and important figures in Trump’s campaign team and businesses, and to issue subpoenas if needed.
“I plan to shine a light on waste, fraud, and abuse in the Trump administration,” Cummings said on Wednesday.
“I want to probe senior administration officials across the government who have abused their positions of power and wasted taxpayer money, as well as President Trump’s decisions to act in his own financial self-interest,” he said in a statement.
The White House could respond to committee demands by citing executive privilege. That would likely result in court battles.
Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told CNN that House Democrats could encounter resistance to probes and subpoenas from lawmakers within their own ranks who won swing districts.
“People like when you focus on the issues, not investigations,” Conway said. “The president’s not nervous about anything.”
A first salvo in the battle is expected to come from Representative Richard Neal, who will likely be the Democratic chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee and who has said he will demand Trump’s tax returns from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. Such a move could set in motion a cascade of probes into any disclosures the documents might hold.
Schiff has said his panel would probe allegations that Russian money may have been laundered though Trump businesses and that Moscow might have financial leverage over him.
Waters and other Democrats have been clamouring for details about Trump’s relationship with German-based Deutsche Bank and what it may know about links between the president and Russia.
Nadler’s panel would handle any effort to impeach Trump, depending on the outcome of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s federal probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections and possible Trump campaign collusion with Moscow.
The panel is also expected to look for ways to protect Mueller and his probe from any Trump effort to torpedo the investigation or suppress its findings.
Trump denies any collusion by his campaign and has long denounced Mueller’s investigation as a witch hunt. Moscow has denied meddling in the 2016 election.
Nadler’s committee is unlikely to hurry toward impeachment. He has said any impeachment effort must be based on evidence of action to subvert the Constitution that is so overwhelming it would trouble even some Trump supporters.
Nadler, Cummings, Waters and Schiff are expected to coordinate their efforts and seek bipartisan cooperation.
Still, Republicans accuse Democrats of preparing to overplay their hand. “There will be irresistible pressure to overreach in their investigations and ultimately impeach the president,” said Republican strategist Michael Steel.
Reporting by David Morgan and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Amanda Becker, Susan Heavey and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Frances Kerry and Bill Trott