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 CohenTrump goes scorched earth against impeachment talk Trump's nastiest break-ups: A look at the president's most fiery feuds Cohen challenges Sekulow to testify about Trump Tower meetings 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 TrumpPapadopoulos on AG's new powers: 'Trump is now on the offense' Pelosi uses Trump to her advantage Mike Pence delivers West Point commencement address MORE and his orbit shifted from special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump orders more troops to Mideast amid Iran tensions Trump: Democrats just want Mueller to testify for a 'do-over' Graham: Mueller investigation a 'political rectal exam' 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 CummingsTrump goes scorched earth against impeachment talk Nancy Pelosi fends off impeachment wave — for now House Democrats, Trump lawyers ask appeals court to expedite subpoena case 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. McGahnElection agency limps into 2020 cycle The Memo: Mueller's depictions will fuel Trump angst The Hill's 12:30 Report: Dems face tricky balancing act after Mueller report 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 MeadowsFive takeaways from Barr's new powers in 'spying' probe Trump declassification move unnerves Democrats Conservative blocks House passage of disaster relief bill MORE (R-N.C.) and Rashida TlaibRashida Harbi TlaibSteyer plans impeachment push targeting Democrats over recess Tlaib urges Mnuchin to seek personal legal advice Pelosi faces tipping point on Trump impeachment 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 DingellMcCain and Dingell: Inspiring a stronger Congress Pelosi should take a page from Tip O'Neill's playbook Alaskan becomes longest serving Republican in House history 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.