Two weeks after Donald Trump was elected U.S. president, Democratic leaders in Congress are already finding out just how limited their powers are to hold him accountable for potential conflicts of interest.
The latest attempt came Wednesday in a letter from Democratic lawmakers Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts requesting that the Government Accountability Office probe the incoming administration’s “chaotic” transition, including possible conflicts that Trump’s business empire could pose to his presidency. It was the sixth such letter that Cummings has sent since the election.
As the minority party in both chambers of Congress, Democrats have few levers available. They lack the power to start congressional investigations or issue subpoenas, and can do little more than ask Trump and his associates to hand over information about their business dealings voluntarily. Any congressional role would require Republican lawmakers to take aim at Trump.
Democrats and government watchdog groups have criticized Trump over his plan to put his children in charge of his business while he’s president, arguing it doesn’t sufficiently insulate his role in serving the national interest from decisions that could impact his personal wealth. Trump responded to that criticism Tuesday in an interview with the New York Times, saying “the law is totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”
Stuart Gilman, a former senior adviser at the Office of Government Ethics, disagreed, saying Trump isn’t completely exempt from government conflict of interest laws. But, he said, only Congress can hold him accountable for a violation.
“He can ignore it completely, and with a Republican House and Senate, nothing is going to happen,” Gilman, who now works for ethics consultant Global Integrity Group, said Wednesday. “I do not see the Congress of the United States enforcing this.”
Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said last week that he will hold the Trump administration to the same standard as he did President Barack Obama’s. “Just because there was a political election doesn’t mean we let off the gas pedal,” he told the Daily Caller News Foundation. But, he also told the Wall Street Journal the week after the election that Trump’s “past business dealings didn’t necessarily have a federal nexus” that he would need to see to launch a new probe.
A spokesman for Chaffetz declined to comment further.
The best hope for Democrats may be to drum up public pressure on Chaffetz via social media. Comedian Sarah Silverman tweeted the Oversight Committee’s phone number on Nov. 17, urging people to call for a bipartisan review of Trump’s conflicts of interest. It was retweeted more than 8,500 times. Heidi Heilig, a New York-based novelist, posted a similar tweet that same day.
“Americans across the country have flooded our Committee’s offices with thousands of calls in strong support of this investigation, jamming our phone lines with more calls than we have ever received in response to any other issue,” said Jennifer Werner, a spokeswoman for Democrats on the Oversight Committee.
At the same time, watchdog groups including the Project on Government Oversight, or POGO, are joining forces to push Trump to put his assets into a blind trust.
“It’s impossible to believe that Mr. Chaffetz isn’t also preparing to look into these matters because they’re so demonstrably serious,” said POGO’s executive director, Danielle Brian. “They’re certainly not complicated, and they’re not partisan, especially the questions of foreign entanglements and their impact on national security.”
In Wednesday’s letter, Cummings and Warren ask the GAO, an independent congressional agency that investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars, to review the transition team for potential conflicts of interest, breaking national security protocols and the possible misuse of federal funds. They questioned the impact of Trump’s business dealings on transition decisions, given that his assets have not been placed in a qualified blind trust.
Gilman said that without a blind trust, perceptions will quickly take hold that “the way to do business in Washington now is to do business with the Trump empire.”
Since he was elected president, Trump has met with Indian business partners, and his daughter, Ivanka Trump, attended a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe without a State Department protocol officer. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte named another Trump business partner as special envoy to the U.S. And the Trump International Hotel in Washington hosted an event for international diplomats and is actively soliciting their business.
Meredith McGehee, chief of policy for ethics watchdog Issue One, said that even without congressional action, there are other mechanisms that could address the issue: Individuals or state attorneys general could sue if they could show harm caused by a Trump conflict of interest.
“There are some options,” McGehee said. “The important thing to note is that they’re all bad. This is no way for an administration to get started and in no way good or healthy for the United States.”
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