5 things to watch as Trump, Dems clash over investigations

The White House is seeking to thwart more than 20 congressional investigations into President TrumpDonald John TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address MORE and his administration, accusing Democrats of trying to score political points against the commander in chief ahead of a reelection year.

The executive branch has refused to cooperate with the requests for documents and witness interviews and fought resulting subpoenas from Democrats seeking to compel the administration to comply.

Democrats have accused Trump and his administration of flouting congressional investigative and oversight powers in an unprecedented way, blocking demands for everything from the president’s tax returns to files on security clearances.

Here are five things to watch for as the standoff between the White House and House Democrats deepens. 

What’s the Dem strategy on punishing officials who don’t comply?

Democrats are vowing to punish White House officials who don’t comply with their inquiries, but leadership hasn’t yet adopted an across-the board strategy to fight back.

House committee chairmen such as Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerNadler wins Democratic primary Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November Clyburn threatens to end in-person coronavirus committee hearings if Republicans won't wear masks MORE (D-N.Y.) and Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffDemocrats hit Trump for handling of Russian bounty allegations after White House briefing Voters must strongly reject the president's abuses by voting him out this November Democrats face tough questions with Bolton MORE (D-Calif.) have floated a range of punitive measures, including unleashing steep daily fines under the House's power of inherent contempt. Some have also proposed jailing those who do not comply under the same rarely used power, while others have raised the prospect of impeaching officials.


House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerHouse to vote on removing bust of Supreme Court justice who wrote Dred Scott ruling Black Caucus unveils next steps to combat racism Democrats expect Russian bounties to be addressed in defense bill MORE (D-Md.) threw cold water on reviving Congress’s inherent contempt power, telling reporters Wednesday, “We're somewhat limited in our ability to carry that out.” But Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money: Breaking down the June jobs report | The biggest threats facing the recovery | What will the next stimulus bill include? Military bases should not be renamed, we must move forward in the spirit of reconciliation Pelosi: Trump 'himself is a hoax' MORE (D-Calif.) put it back on the table the following day.

“Nothing is to be off the table,” Pelosi told reporters at a weekly press conference.

The leaders, however, do agree that they want to wait until after Memorial Day to target individuals who are refusing to comply with contempt citations, including Attorney General William BarrBill BarrDemocrat asks Barr to preserve any records tied to environmental hacking probe Justice Dept. considering replacing outgoing US attorney in Brooklyn with Barr deputy: report Ousted Manhattan US Attorney Berman to testify before House next week MORE, whom the Judiciary panel recommended be held in contempt for failing to turn over 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 full report. The timetable gives House leaders an opportunity to assess their next steps.

Rep. Mike QuigleyMichael (Mike) Bruce QuigleyDemocrats accuse SBA of stonewalling GAO's attempts to oversee lending program Democrats call for probe into ouster of State Dept. watchdog Bipartisan lawmakers call for global 'wet markets' ban amid coronavirus crisis MORE (D-Ill.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told The Hill this week that House leadership will ultimately need to make a call on the “overall” strategy moving forward.

“I have my opinion, and I weigh in, and it’s up to people to make those decisions. We’re in uncharted territory,” Quigley said. 

Does Trump assert executive privilege to block witnesses?

Trump has declared an all-out battle against Democrats’ investigative pursuits, but Washington is bracing to see whether the president will formally assert executive privilege to block the testimony of key witnesses before Congress.

The president telegraphed earlier this month that he will seek to stop his advisers, including former White House counsel Don McGahn, from testifying, though he has not made a formal executive assertion to prevent the lawyer from appearing.

“I can’t say, ‘Well, one can, and the others can’t,’” Trump said during an interview with Fox News earlier this month. “I would say it’s done. We’ve gone through this.”

Judiciary Committee Democrats have issued a subpoena for McGahn’s testimony, scheduling a Tuesday hearing for him to publicly testify about his former boss. But it is unclear whether McGahn will show up.
Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsLiberal veterans group urges Biden to name Duckworth VP Democrats seize on Florida pandemic response ahead of general election Progressive groups urge Biden to tap Warren as running mate MORE (D-Fla.) told The Hill on Friday that she and her fellow panel members “don’t know” if McGahn will testify.

“I think that everybody that we’ve subpoenaed for documents or to come before Congress and testify will eventually have to comply with the subpoenas,” Demings said.

Democrats are eager to hear from McGahn, particularly after he provided Mueller with extensive and damaging testimony about Trump’s attempts to have the special counsel removed.

Democrats argue the president cannot assert executive privilege over McGahn’s testimony because Trump already allowed him to speak with Mueller and did not assert privilege over Mueller’s report before it was released. But White House lawyer Emmet Flood argued in a letter to Barr on April 19 that the president’s decision not to make a privilege claim over Mueller’s report does not prevent him from invoking privilege to prevent his advisers’ testimony on the matter.

While some outside legal experts have disputed Flood’s argument, Trump has made it clear he will be fighting back.

"We're fighting all the subpoenas," Trump told reporters late last month.

How do the fights over Mueller’s report, testimony play out?

Two committees are currently locked in separate standoffs with the Justice Department over access to Mueller’s full report and underlying evidence.

Both the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees have issued subpoenas for Mueller’s full report and other materials, arguing they have a right to the files given their oversight and investigative authorities. Both committees are also seeking testimony from Mueller himself, though no deals have been announced.

The Justice Department has resisted demands to send Mueller’s full report and underlying files to Congress, asserting that such a disclosure could compromise ongoing investigations and noting Barr does not have the legal right to unilaterally release grand jury material.

Instead, Barr has allowed a select group of lawmakers to view a less redacted version of the report in a secure room, on the condition they keep its contents secret. The Justice Department has also said it’s willing to negotiate with the committees to reach an appropriate accommodation.

But Democrats say the administration has fallen short of demonstrating a good-faith effort to negotiate. Schiff told reporters late Thursday that his panel would vote on an “enforcement action” to compel the Justice Department to comply with the subpoena within the week, after Barr missed the panel’s Wednesday deadline.

“The long and the short of it is the deadline came and went without the production of a single document, raising profound questions about whether the department has any intention to honor its legal obligations,” Schiff told reporters.

Nadler’s panel has also voted to hold Barr in contempt for failing to comply with the subpoena. Trump made a “protective” assertion of executive privilege over the materials on the attorney general’s recommendation as the committee moved forward on the vote, further deepening the standoff over the documents.

It’s unclear how the fights over the Mueller report will play out. The full House needs to vote on the Judiciary Committee's contempt resolution for Barr before Nadler goes to court to enforce the subpoena.

It’s possible Schiff could also look to hold Barr in contempt next week, though details on the enforcement action he is considering are a mystery. Schiff said the committee will defer to the House counsel to decide what the best course of action is to enforce the subpoena. 

How do the courts rule on subpoenas?

Democrats’ subpoenas are already being tested in the courts, and forthcoming rulings could offer a road map of how judges will rule in disputes between Congress and Trump and his administration.

Attorneys for Trump and his businesses are locked in a dispute with the House Oversight Committee, headed by Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsFacial recognition tools under fresh scrutiny amid police protests The sad spectacle of Trump's enablers Democrat Kweisi Mfume wins House primary in Maryland MORE (D-Md.), as they try to block a subpoena for private financial records from the accounting firm Mazars.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., is expected to swiftly rule on the matter after both parties make their final arguments by the end of next week.

Lawyers representing Trump and his businesses argued at a hearing earlier this week that the committee didn’t have standing to issue the subpoena, describing the document request as a matter of “law enforcement” and thus beyond Congress’s authorities.

However, Judge Amit Mehta, an Obama appointee, pushed back on Trump lawyer William Consovoy, noting that congressional investigations such as Watergate weren’t tied to specific legislation — a potential sign he could ultimately rule in Congress’s favor.

Meanwhile, Trump and his family are going to court in Manhattan to fight a congressional subpoena for financial records from Deutsche Bank, a firm that lent the president billions of dollars over the years. They are also challenging a similar subpoena issued to Capital One.

The House Intelligence and Financial Services committees jointly issued a subpoena for the documents. A court hearing is scheduled for next Wednesday in the case.

How long can the White House delay?

Even if the White House is not ultimately successful in evading document requests and blocking witnesses, it could significantly delay Congress’s investigation — a result that would surely infuriate Democrats.

Lawmakers are already growing frustrated with what they describe as unprecedented efforts by the Trump administration to stonewall legitimate congressional requests, with some of them accusing the president of igniting a “constitutional crisis.”

This week, the White House declined to comply with a document request issued in early March from the Judiciary Committee, accusing the panel of attempting a “do-over” of Mueller’s investigation by pursuing a sprawling inquiry into alleged obstruction and other abuses of power by the president. White House counsel Pat Cipollone also asserted that the request implicates matters subject to executive privilege.

Now Nadler, who blasted the response as “ridiculous,” must decide how to proceed — by taking compulsory action or trying to negotiate with the White House.

Court fights over subpoenas for witness testimony and documents could take months to resolve, even if judges look to expedite the process.

Legal experts say, for instance, that the White House would be unlikely to successfully suppress McGahn’s testimony by asserting privilege but could still delay his appearance and ultimately send it to the Supreme Court to resolve.

Trump may see more success in blocking other subpoenas, while executive privilege fights over specific documents will likely be more difficult to resolve.

Jacqueline Thomsen contributed.