December 17, 2018 / 6:48 PM / 2 months ago

Democrats jostle over investigations into Trump's finances, Russia ties

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With less than three weeks to go before they take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats are jockeying to lead overlapping investigations into President Donald Trump in a scramble that could cause headaches for Nancy Pelosi, who is expected to be House speaker.

FILE PHOTO: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) speaks with members of her staff before speaking to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

The investigations will be led by as many as six different House committees with some falling under the possible jurisdiction of two or more, Democratic congressional sources said.

The main areas of investigation include Trump’s tax returns and business properties; any collusion between his campaign team and Russian interference in the 2016 election; any violations of a constitutional clause that forbids the president from accepting gifts from foreign governments without the consent of Congress; and allegations that he broke campaign finance laws with hush money payments to two women who said they had sex with him.

Democrats are keen to start digging but could face problems if they move too quickly and are seen to be neglecting legislation on key issues or if they bicker among themselves over who leads the investigations.

Democratic sources familiar with weeks of regular talks between the senior lawmakers who will lead the House committees said a key issue has been how to prevent overlap between dozens of possible probes.

Most of the investigative roles have been agreed on but there is still some jostling, especially from rank-and-file committee members who want a piece of the action.

“There’s going to be jockeying. But there’s also got to be some refereeing,” Representative Elijah Cummings, who is in line to chair the House Oversight Committee, told Reuters.

“One thing we’ve vowed to do is not step on each other. We may be in disagreement but we’re not going to be disagreeable,” he said.

Pelosi, likely to be elected speaker of the House in January, will have a central role in deciding which committees take on the investigations, and how they coordinate.

‘PEOPLE DESERVE ANSWERS’

Ashley Etienne, a senior adviser to Pelosi, said Democrats have had weekly strategy meetings on their oversight work throughout Trump’s presidency and are “incredibly coordinated” and ready to go after winning a House majority in elections last month.

“The American people deserve answers and demand accountability,” Etienne told Reuters. “Given the magnitude of the corruption, cronyism and incompetency in this administration, it’s definitely a war room-style effort.”

Most of the investigative work will be done by six House committees - Intelligence, Government Reform and Oversight, Ways and Means, Judiciary, Financial Services and Foreign Affairs.

Sources say Democrats on several committees want to probe Trump’s ties to Russia, especially his plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow and whether he told his former attorney Michael Cohen to lie about them in testimony to Congress.

“The Russia piece is the most complicated because there are so many moving parts,” Cummings said.

The incoming chairs of at least three committees also have expressed interest in examining Trump’s debts and financial relationships, including his dealings with Deutsche Bank.

Other issues that could attract multiple committees include the Trump administration’s controversial immigration policies.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the likely House investigations.

Trump denies any collusion between his campaign and Moscow ahead of the election, calling an investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and congressional probes part of a “witch hunt” against him.

He also has denied any wrongdoing in his business affairs, the efforts to seek a property deal in Moscow or in his government’s immigration policies.

PRIORITIES

Pelosi said last week that obtaining Trump’s tax returns will be a top priority.

“There is popular demand for the Congress to request the president’s tax returns,” she said, adding that “the first steps” will be taken by Ways and Means, the only House committee authorized to request them from Treasury.

Some Democrats are concerned, however, that an aggressive early effort to dig into Trump’s taxes could be risky, with Trump’s allies almost certain to allege he is being harassed.

To avoid that, Democrats are debating a different approach: investigate other companies and individuals involved in controversial Trump properties and combine that with transaction data on file with government agencies in order to justify a request for Trump’s tax returns.

When he was running for president, Trump refused to release his tax returns, saying he would do it once an audit was completed. He has yet to release them and his administration is expected to resist any congressional request for them, meaning a likely legal battle ahead.

Other elements of Trump’s financial and business dealings also are in House Democrats’ crosshairs.

The Intelligence Committee’s incoming chairman, Representative Adam Schiff, has said Democrats need to look into “credible allegations that the Russians may have been laundering money through the Trump organization.”

Aides to Representative Jackie Speier, a key Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, already are compiling evidence about the alleged involvement of organized crime figures in Trump property deals, including some outside the United States.

Trump has said he wants to work with Democrats on passing bipartisan legislation but that it will not happen if they start investigations against him.

“We’re going to go down one of two tracks,” he told Reuters in an interview last week. “We’re either going to start the campaign and they’re going to do presidential harassment. Or we’re going to get tremendous amounts of legislation passed working together. There’s not a third track.”

Reporting By Mark Hosenball and David Morgan; additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Jeff Mason; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Kieran Murray and Bill Trott

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