The day after Republicans lost the House majority in November, suffering major losses in once-safe suburban districts, a defiant President Donald Trump stood in the White House East Room and threatened a “warlike posture” if Democrats launched investigations into him.
Four months later, Trump and Democrats are showing just what that warlike posture looks like.
The divided government that voters elected last year is digging into all aspects of Trump's White House, campaign, businesses, and family in a way that has already put the president on defense — with even more investigations and subpoenas expected as Trump prepares for the 2020 election. It’s also forcing a tough vote for Republicans on a resolution against Trump’s national emergency declaration for the southern border, which will likely lead to a rare rebuke of the president’s actions from members of his own party.
As the pressure piles up, however, the president and his allies are convinced that voters will side with their messaging that portrays the Democrats’ efforts as politically motivated to keep Trump from getting re-elected. In tweets and in response to questions about the investigations, Trump has repeatedly referred to the probes as “presidential harassment.”
“This just looks like they are trying everyone and their mother who has ever been connected to Trump,” said a former White House official. “The risk for Democrats is that it’s more transparent that it’s political. When they do this type of fishing expedition, they are setting themselves up for blowback.”
From Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s dramatic testimony to a sweeping document requests from the House Judiciary Committee, Democrats — who were slow to kick off their investigations because of the government shutdown and budget standoffs that took up the first part of the year — have in the last two weeks begun pursuing all avenues that could show any wrongdoing by the president or his associates.
“This is our constitutional responsibility to have oversight over the executive branch,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a press conference Thursday morning, responding to a question about whether the flurry in investigative activity was a response to any new evidence. “The evidence they will have is what they will gather doing the oversight, bringing truth to the American people.”
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a member the House Intelligence Committee, which heard 16-hours of testimony from Cohen, joked he hadn’t “heard of that type of harassment,” responding to Trump’s “presidential harassment” claims.
“I think that's just called oversight,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I think honestly the president likes to talk about his role on The Apprentice, but folks like Michael Cohen and others paint the Trump Organization, and some others paint the White House, as like The Sopranos.”
The aggressive posture from Democrats, who also just hired a veteran prosecutor experienced in Russian mob cases, has already irked Trump.
Part of the president’s frustrations with the investigations, according to sources close to the White House, is that Democrats on various committees are inching closer toward his business and family. In an interview with the New York Times in 2017, the president said he considered investigating his business and finances to be breach of a red line.
As part of their broad investigation, the House Judiciary Committee appears to already be crossing that line with its request for records from top executives at Trump Organization — some of whom were also named by Cohen during his public testimony and have been part of Trump’s inner circle for decades.
Until this year, the president enjoyed a largely united Republican majority, with powerless congressional Democrats unable to do much beyond criticizing the president. But now they’re in control of the House, and invited Cohen to a seven-hour public hearing last week in which he scorched Trump, who was in Vietnam at the time meeting with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. Trump ended up leaving Hanoi without a deal and then tweeted five times about Cohen the morning after landing in Washington, DC. Trump then went on to give a rambling, two-hour speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, during which he returned to repeatedly addressing one of his biggest insecurities — crowd sizes — while also labeling the growing number of investigations around him as “bullshit.”
“So now they go and morph into, let’s inspect every deal he’s ever done. ... These people are sick. They’re sick,” he said during his CPAC speech Saturday.
Trump’s family members are also now under renewed scrutiny. Democrats on the House Oversight Committee are demanding more information on how Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner got his security clearance. According to the New York Times and CNN, the president stepped in to grant Kushner and Ivanka Trump security clearances after he was advised against it.
Asked about Kushner’s security clearance, Trump told reporters earlier this week that the Democrats were focusing on “nonsense” instead of legislating. “Essentially what they are saying is the campaign begins,” he said. “Instead of doing infrastructure, instead of doing health care, instead of doing so many things they should be doing, they want to play games.”
White House lawyers, too, are fighting back on Democrats’ request for information on Kushner’s clearance, calling it “radically intrusive” and insisting they don’t have the legal grounds to seek those records. Their refusal to cooperate will likely result in subpoenas.
The House Oversight Committee has also expressed interest in Donald Trump Jr., who signed two of the checks reimbursing Cohen for to hush money payments to a porn star. Both the president’s sons are also among the 81 individuals and organizations who received a request for records from the House Judiciary Committee.
Sam Nunberg, one of Trump’s former advisers, is another one of those individuals. “I think elections have consequences,” Nunberg said. “This is Congress’s right under a Democratic majority.”
Nunberg, however, also warned that the closer Democrats get to Trump’s adult children or Trump Organization, the more they risk overreaching. “That’s where the Democrats are going to pull a Kavanaugh,” he said, invoking the Supreme Court justice who was accused of sexual misconduct before his confirmation hearings.
After calling on Trump to release his tax returns for four years, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee say they are also using their majority power to build the case to request those returns.
Another former White House official questioned the level of impact these investigations could even have in the Trump-era news cycle. “There’s much less risk of Democrats overreaching as any mistake will be bled out of the media cycle relatively quickly with whatever new scandal du jour inevitably pops up,” the former official said. “By the same token, any damaging information from these hearing for Trump will also be bled out as well.”
The Democratic takeover in the House is also forcing cracks within Trump's own party. Unable to come up with a deal with Pelosi, Trump declared a national emergency to get funding for the wall along the southern border — his top campaign promise.
Some Republicans are now joining Democrats to express their constitutional concerns with Trump bypassing Congress to secure funding through a national emergency. The president is expected to veto a resolution against his national emergency, and he is known to keep close track of legislators who cross him.
In that same press conference the day after the election, during those 90-minutes of unscripted comments, Trump called out the Republicans who had lost their races, he claimed, because they had distanced themselves from him.
“Mia Love,” he said, bringing up the former House member from Utah, “gave me no love, and she lost.”
Nidhi Prakash contributed reporting.