2018 U.S. Midterm Elections

How House Democrats Will Investigate Trump’s Russia Ties

Gains in congressional midterm elections give Democrats crucial subpoena power.

House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.)  speaks at a news conference about the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit in Washington on July 17. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
House Intelligence Committee member Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) speaks at a news conference about the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit in Washington on July 17. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

With Democrats in control of the U.S. House of Representatives following Tuesday’s midterm elections, they will take over a prize possession: the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, with full subpoena power to investigate President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.

During Trump’s first two years in office, House Republicans used the committee largely to protect him. In an interview with Foreign Policy, one of the committee’s ambitious young Democrats, Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, explained exactly how that would change.

The Democrats’ investigation would focus on bank and travel records of Trump lieutenants and businesses. It would also attempt to resolve questions about the president’s knowledge of a Russian offer during the 2016 campaign to provide political dirt on his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. And in the aftermath of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, the committee might also scrutinize Trump’s business ties to the Gulf.

While Senate committees typically require the assent of the chairman and ranking member to issue a subpoena, House committees grant that authority to the chairman alone. This makes the House Intelligence Committee, with its jurisdiction over the massive U.S. intelligence community, a uniquely powerful tool in the hands of a savvy investigator.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity and was conducted prior to Tuesday’s election.

Foreign Policy: If Democrats take over Congress and control of the House Intelligence Committee, what are your investigative priorities?

Eric Swalwell: The first would be to fill in the gaps that exist between what we wanted to pursue in the Russia investigation and what the Republicans allowed us to pursue, which was almost zero when it came to using subpoena power to get documents, bank records, cell-phone records, travel logs, etc. There are a lot of gaps to fill in there.

More broadly, we’ll be looking at what we can do to protect and secure the 2020 presidential election. That will be a major target, we expect, based on what the Russians did in 2016 and what they are doing now. We want to make sure that Americans have the awareness they need when they go to the polls in 2020.

FP: Are there specific documents that you plan to use the committee’s subpoena power to seek?

ES: There are a lot of unanswered questions around the Trump Tower meeting [with a Russian lawyer close to the Kremlin]. What happened with Don Jr. [Trump’s son, who attended the meeting] and his father when the offer was made a couple days before the meeting of compromising information on Hillary Clinton?

There was a blocked number that was called in the phone records we have from Donald Trump Jr. We know from other testimony that candidate Trump had a number that would come up as blocked. If Donald Trump Jr. told his father of the offer, that would change everything, because they always denied that that was the case.

Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen was in negotiations during the early part of the primary to put a Trump Tower in Moscow. And there are still questions about whether he went over during the campaign to Eastern Europe to meet with Russians, as the Steele dossier alleges. Getting those travel logs would be important.

Deutsche Bank has come up a number of times as a lender to the Trump Organization. They have a history of being fined for essentially laundering money for the Russians. At a time when Donald Trump was not receiving loans from any U.S.-based bank, he was getting help from Deutsche Bank.

We’d like to understand the true financial relationship there and whether any Russian money was involved.

Those are just a few, but they should have been pushed through in the last two years. Every request to do so was denied by Republicans on the committee.

FP: Do you plan to examine Michael Cohen’s business activities following the inauguration?

ES: We want to see if he colluded or cooperated. It looks like he was offering to work with Russians or Russian-connected individuals to be a consultant and perhaps someone who could influence the administration.

Our primary interest is in lines of inquiry that tell us what the relationships are between the Trump family, the business, and the campaign with the Russians—whether it was during the campaign or even ongoing today.

FP: Do you plan to examine reports that Gulf states attempted to influence the Trump campaign through fundraisers and other wealthy individuals?

ES: The Trump family and organization, based on press accounts, have had puzzling relationships with the Qataris, the Emiratis, and the Saudis. Before the Jamal Khashoggi tragedy, there may have been an argument that that’s not as relevant as other priorities that we have.

However, now we are learning more about Mr. Khashoggi and how he was killed, the lack of a response from the Trump team, and the long-standing financial interests that Donald Trump had with the Saudis.

And then put into perspective that the first trip the president made internationally was to Saudi Arabia, and right after that trip is when this split with Qatar happened and the blockade occurred.

There’s a lot of questions about what happened with those three countries and the Trump campaign, and whether the administration, the campaign, and the business were viewed as essentially for sale. Did foreign adversaries beyond Russia see them as easy marks because they didn’t have any scruples or code of ethics? I think those are fair lines to pursue.

FP: The recent history of the House Intelligence Committee has been deeply politicized, and its Republican leaders have been accused of running political interference on behalf of the president. How do you avoid the same charge if you plan an aggressive investigation of the president?

ES: You demonstrate with your deeds that you’re only interested in a serious investigation. You don’t do things just because you can. You don’t do things that have already been done. You aren’t out to seek a pound of flesh.

Ranking member [Adam] Schiff has a sincere interest in trying to heal some of the wounds that were inflicted by the way that Chairman [Devin] Nunes led the committee. We want to get back to the comity that we’ve had in the past.

But we have a job to do as well. We’re not going to have the shovels out and bury the evidence as was done in the last two years.

FP: The great weapon of the current Republican majority on the committee is the use of the unilateral subpoena power and the ability of the chairman to act unilaterally. Is there a part of you thats a little bit excited to have unilateral subpoena power?

ES: There’s a lot of evidence that we want to pursue. The investigation was essentially a “take them at their word” investigation. We weren’t able to test the accounts that were given to us to see if they could be corroborated or contradicted. And subpoena power will allow us to do that.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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