Breadth of Trump probe poses challenge for Dems

Breadth of Trump probe poses challenge for Dems
© Greg Nash

The House Judiciary Committee’s newly launched probe 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’s administration, business and campaign is likely to dominate the panel’s work over the coming months.

The investigation threatens to dog the president well into the 2020 race, and Trump is already lashing out at House Democrats for “playing games” and trying to bruise his reelection chances.

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The probe also faces its own hurdles, including the likelihood the White House will assert executive privilege to evade portions of the broad swath of document requests unveiled Monday, a move that could trigger a lengthy court battle.

The wide-ranging probe into allegations of obstruction of justice, public corruption and abuses of power is also expected to place significant demands on committee staff given the sheer volume of documents and correspondence they will have to sift through and catalogue.

“You send out 81 letters, you’re doing a serious investigation. There is going to be an issue for them because it is not only large, but it is amorphous,” said Steven Cash, former chief counsel for Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Cash noted that Democratic committee aides will need to keep track of document and interview requests, contacts with lawyers representing those 81 individuals and entities and decisions on subpoenas being issued to witnesses who do not comply.

“Just imagine the spreadsheets that are going to have to be done,” Cash said. “That is resource-intensive.”

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House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerDemocrats are running out of stunts to pull from impeachment playbook Trump asks if Nadler will look into Clinton's 'deleted and acid washed' emails Trump tweets conservative commentator's criticism of FBI director MORE (D-N.Y.) announced the sprawling probe on Monday, writing in letters accompanying document requests to 81 individuals and organizations tied to Trump that his committee has an “obligation to investigate evidence of abuses of executive power, public corruption, and acts of obstruction designed to undermine both our laws and the credibility of the agencies that enforce those laws.”

The scope of the document request sent to the White House is itself expansive. The committee asked for materials related to several key events and areas of interest, including the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between members of the Trump campaign and a Russian lawyer, the firing of former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyFive takeaways from Barr's new powers in 'spying' probe Trump orders intel agencies to cooperate with Barr probe into 'spying' on 2016 campaign Attorney General Barr puts former intel bosses on notice MORE and payments or discussions about payments in connection with women who alleged having affairs with Trump.

The committee is also asking the White House for documents related to the president’s communications with current and former White House officials, such as those between Trump and former White House counsel Don McGahn regarding former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s false statements to the FBI and the president’s contacts with Comey.

Trump may very well invoke executive privilege, which allows him and other high-level administration officials to keep certain communications private. The White House suggested Monday that Trump would assert that privilege in responding to a separate request from House Democrats concerning his private conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump, who initially signaled he would cooperate with the Judiciary Committee probe, indicated Tuesday he was unwilling to do so, citing what he said was former President Obama’s handling of congressional probes during his time in office.

“They didn’t give one letter,” Trump said, referring to the Obama administration. “They didn’t do anything. They didn’t give one letter of the requests.”

The scope of executive privilege has been challenged before, and it is possible that an effort by Trump to assert it could prompt a months-long legal fight in the courts. Other witnesses could invoke the Fifth Amendment in an effort to avoid responding to requests, creating additional hurdles for the panel as it seeks to compile what a committee counsel for the majority described as a “treasure trove” of evidence in its sprawling probe.

Nadler has given all recipients two weeks to voluntarily respond with a limited number of documents and to work with his staff to agree upon a schedule for producing the remaining materials.

The committee will then decide whether to subpoena any witnesses who do not comply with the voluntary request.

The Judiciary Committee was already staffing up ahead of Monday’s announcement. Nadler announced last month that he was hiring former White House lawyer Norm Eisen and white-collar criminal defense attorney Barry Berke as part-time counsels.

When asked Tuesday about whether there are plans to hire additional staffers, a committee spokesman did not elaborate beyond saying the panel has “a lot of incredibly qualified and competent people working” on the investigation.

Even so, former congressional aides and legal experts say the probe is likely to become the main focus of the committee for several months.

“It’s going to eat up a lot of bandwidth, assuming they do it right,” said one former senior congressional oversight counsel.

Cash, who is now a lawyer at Day Pitney LLP, said the committee will need staff members with prosecutorial and investigative experience in complex areas.

“This is going to require more than one ringmaster to do it well,” he said. “I cannot imagine it taking anything less than the rest of the Congress, certainly until 2020.”

The breadth of the investigation led to accusations of overreach from Trump and his Republican allies, who branded the probe a fishing expedition. Some have also said Democrats are setting the stage for impeachment proceedings, though House leaders have tamped down such talk.

“We do not now have the evidence all sorted out and everything to do — to do an impeachment. Before you impeach somebody, you have to persuade the American public that it ought to happen,” Nadler said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Still, Democratic and Republican strategists are warning that GOP messaging may prove effective with voters overall if it appears the committee’s inquiry is too broad.

“By announcing such a large number, Democrats are simultaneously sending the signal that this will be a wide-reaching investigation and that it’s a possible fishing expedition designed to extract as much political pain for the administration as possible,” said former Republican National Committee communications director Doug Heye.

Former Obama strategist David Axelrod wrote on Twitter that the investigation’s scope “too easily plays into the ‘witch-hunt’ meme,” regardless of the inquiry’s legitimacy.

But some Democratic sources disagree, saying the panel is simply fulfilling its constitutional role as a check on the executive branch.

“This is an administration that like a fish, stinks a lot from the head, so Democrats have a lot of ground to make up,” said Jon Reinish, senior vice president of SKDKnickerbocker, a firm that has consulted for Democratic campaigns. “And casting a net when there is so much suspicion and so many areas where it is clear that there are problems, it is your constitutional job to look into all of it.”