Cummings shows how oversight should be done - and that's bad news for Trump

A remarkable thing happened at last week’s Michael CohenMichael Dean CohenAppeals court appears skeptical of Trump's latest argument against tax returns subpoena Judge orders Eric Trump to comply with New York AG's subpoena before Election Day A huge deal for campaign disclosure: Trump's tax records for Biden's medical records MORE hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The untrained eye might have missed it. In that one hearing, the center of gravity of the government’s two-year investigation into President TrumpDonald John TrumpFederal prosecutor speaks out, says Barr 'has brought shame' on Justice Dept. Former Pence aide: White House staffers discussed Trump refusing to leave office Progressive group buys domain name of Trump's No. 1 Supreme Court pick MORE and his orbit shifted from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE’s Russia probe to the House of Representatives’ evolving oversight agenda.

The reason was not only the information provided publicly by Cohen, but more importantly the leadership and moral authority demonstrated by Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsBlack GOP candidate accuses Behar of wearing black face in heated interview Overnight Health Care: US won't join global coronavirus vaccine initiative | Federal panel lays out initial priorities for COVID-19 vaccine distribution | NIH panel: 'Insufficient data' to show treatment touted by Trump works House Oversight Democrats to subpoena AbbVie in drug pricing probe MORE (D-Md.) during the hearing. Whether he can continue that leadership remains to be seen. But for now, he has it.

This development has implications for House impeachment.

The Cummings inquiry revealed numerous investigative leads and potential witnesses for multiple House committees. There’s now a feeding frenzy, a competition to gather facts. House Judiciary entered the fray Monday with its document requests of 81 entities and individuals. House Intelligence continues its hearings tomorrow. Impeachment needs to be placed on the shelf while leads can be run to ground and witnesses bled for information. There is also a strategic reason to shelve impeachment: It can only backfire.

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It’s become clear that the financial and fraud cases being investigated by the Southern District of New York (SDNY), spawned by the Mueller investigation, are where the action is. Thanks to Cohen, Congress can begin gathering information in that space without necessarily bumping into the feds. Congress can maneuver around interfering in a criminal probe, 5th Amendment pleas, attorney-client privilege, and even executive privilege and still get the job done — whether or not their efforts get tied up in the courts.

They will start with Allen Weisselberg, David Pecker, Don Jr., Rick Gates, John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, Donald McGahnDonald (Don) F. McGahnCongress hits rock bottom in losing to the president in subpoena ruling Rudy Giuliani's reputation will never recover from the impeachment hearings In private moment with Trump, Justice Kennedy pushed for Kavanaugh Supreme Court nomination: book MORE, and on and on. With a motherlode of subjects and potential documentation, who needs impeachment? With public hearings now possible with the Democratic majority, give me death by a thousand cuts anytime.    

The Cummings hearing gave the public the first taste of what to expect. He held that hearing together. It could have been irreparably fractious, a partisan food-fight typical of that committee over the past 25 years. Notwithstanding Republicans’ valiant efforts to turn the hearing into political theater, Cummings defused it.

First, he told Cohen that, if he told further lies before the committee, Cummings would nail him to the cross. He diplomatically brokered on the spot a racially sensitive skirmish between Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsWhite House chief of staff knocks FBI director over testimony on election fraud Anxious Democrats amp up pressure for vote on COVID-19 aid Pelosi hopeful COVID-19 relief talks resume 'soon' MORE (R-N.C.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibTrump attacks Omar for criticizing US: 'How did you do where you came from?' George Conway: 'Trump is like a practical joke that got out of hand' Pelosi endorses Kennedy in Massachusetts Senate primary challenge MORE (D-Mich.). He adeptly resolved a disagreement between Meadows and Cohen over financial disclosures to the committee about contracts with foreign entities. And finally, in a powerful closing statement, he told Cohen, in his trademark even-handed way, “I don’t know whether people believe you. I don’t know.” And he implored the country to get back to normal, because “as a country, we are so much better than this.”

Two things I learned in my two decades of conducting congressional oversight: First, successful oversight must be bipartisan; and second, you must command moral authority in the issues you present. There is no bipartisanship in the House of Representatives in these times, yet Cummings did his level best to prevent an all-out circus, and he succeeded.

As for moral authority, he sure commanded that. His closing statement was clearly not written by staff. It came straight from the heart.

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It has been a long while since I’ve seen that kind of moral authority exhibited in Congress. You have to go back to the glory days of Chairman John DingellJohn DingellRaces heat up for House leadership posts Democrats flubbed opportunity to capitalize on postal delays COVID-19 bill limiting liability would strike the wrong balance MORE’s oversight prowess, or Senate leaders Howard Baker and George Mitchell, who were maestros at it. Cummings set the bar high for his fellow chairmen as they pursue their oversight agenda against Trump. If they match what he did, they will succeed.

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Democrats took the reins of House power only two months ago. That’s not a lot of time to perform gumshoe investigating to make a splash. Cummings chose to get the ball rolling the best way possible — he invited a controversial Trump insider who could offer leads for the committee to track. Cohen delivered. He has opened up a can of investigative worms.

Here’s what we learned through Cohen: He provided documents showing alleged Trump campaign finance violations, possible bank fraud, possible tax evasion, possible insurance fraud, possible tax fraud, and apparent self-dealing within the Trump Foundation. Not bad for a day’s work in Congress.

What’s more, it’s now open-season for Cummings and other House committees to repeat what Cummings did last week, only with different witnesses. They can start by camping out in Cohen’s storage space, combing through his documents returned to him by the FBI. Then comes Nadler’s list of 81. Pandora never had it so rich.

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Following this game plan will slowly turn public opinion against Trump.

I remember in the early 1980s the public voted in President Ronald Reagan in part because our military was perceived to be weak. Reagan and Congress ramped up the defense budget. The defense industry was suddenly swimming in cash. There was so much money available that, instead of producing more weapons and capability, we got higher prices and weapons that didn’t work. 

Our oversight efforts saturated the public — from newspapers to late night talk shows — with horror stories of over-priced spare parts and weapons that put our troops in harm’s way. After two years of such stories, we were able to freeze the defense budget in the middle of the Cold War. We had turned public sentiment 180 degrees, against higher defense budgets. That’s what the House’s oversight agenda can do to President Trump.

By contrast, impeachment is risky business. With a House game plan as described above, public sentiment can change. But will the Republican Senate’s sentiment change? That sets up an interesting choice: Behind Door #1 lurks impeachment and Republican senators; behind Door #2 are horror stories and an informed public ready to vote in 2020.

If I’m the House Democrats, I’m betting the house on Door #2.

Kris Kolesnik is a 34-year veteran of federal government oversight. He spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the associate inspector general for external affairs.