Report

House Dems to Turn the Screws on Trump’s State Department

The new Congress will flex its oversight muscles on everything from mismanagement at the State Department to questions about Trump’s finances.

From left, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Rep. Eliot Engel, and Rep. Adam Schiff on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 15, 2017. (Zach Gibson/AFP/Getty Images)
From left, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, Rep. Eliot Engel, and Rep. Adam Schiff on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 15, 2017. (Zach Gibson/AFP/Getty Images)

Democrats in the House of Representatives, savoring electoral victory and armed with subpoena power, plan to ramp up scrutiny of the Trump administration, including State Department reprisals against career diplomats and possible corruption involving the White House and president’s entanglements with foreign powers.

The investigations are part of a wider plan by House Democrats to reclaim Congress’s traditional oversight role and constrain the Trump administration’s efforts to reshape international trade and environmental agreements.

Congressional staffers concede that, with the Senate even more firmly in Republican hands, they will have limited power to alter the course of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy. But they say they will be able to shine a brighter light on the president’s conduct on the world stage through stepped-up investigations and public hearings.

“The American people have made it clear that they want to restore oversight and accountability in Washington,” Rep. Eliot Engel, the likely next chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Foreign Policy. He said the committee would be ready in January to “hold this Administration in check and counter the policies that have undermined American leadership around the world.”

Democrats are mapping out an oversight strategy across multiple committees, including the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and the Foreign Affairs Committee. They aim to probe charges of fraud, waste, and abuse of power in the administration, including ethics scandals, handling of security clearances for administration appointees, scrutiny into Trump’s vast and opaque financial empire, and politically motivated attacks on career government employees.

Republican leaders were quick to chastise such plans as counterproductive. “The Democrats in the House will have to decide just how much presidential harassment they think is good strategy,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at a press conference on Wednesday morning. “I’m not so sure it’ll work for them.”

One early target is likely to be the State Department. In the past year, House and Senate Democrats say they have been stymied in their efforts to probe allegations, extensively documented by FP, that political appointees have carried out reprisals against career civil service and foreign service officers at the State Department, first under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then under his successor, Mike Pompeo.

Despite a pledge by Pompeo to cooperate, “we basically got zero response,” one congressional aide said. “We have been totally stonewalled.”

“I don’t think anyone wants to go crazy with the subpoenas, but those documents should be provided if requested,” the aide added.

State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Palladino called the criticisms “utter nonsense” and said the department was fully cooperating with internal investigations, though he declined to offer specifics on how State was cooperating with Congress. 

The investigatory power of the new Democratic House offers a chance to address long-simmering problems that Republican congressional leadership chose to ignore.

“What’s clear at the State Department, from both the Pompeo era as well as the Rex Tillerson era, is that there are a lot of management issues and problems and controversies and those merit congressional scrutiny,” said Max Bergmann, a former State Department official, now a senior fellow with the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. “The management of the State Department will finally be put under a microscope.”

Given Republican control of the Senate, a more robust oversight role from the House is about all that can be expected, said Brett Schaefer, a U.N. specialist at the Heritage Foundation.

“They can launch investigations and look into conflicts of interests. They can call for hearings. They can request [Government Accountability Office] reports, but I don’t see this leading to a different kind of policy,” he said. Congress, like the executive and judicial branches of government, he added, “should be aggressive in protecting their prerogatives.”

Congressional investigators have sought to obtain emails and other documents from political appointees, including Brian Hook, who served as a top advisor to Tillerson and is now the department’s special representative on Iran, and Mari Stull, a former food lobbyist who currently serves as a senior advisor in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs. The two are already subjects of investigations by the State Department’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), an independent federal watchdog.

“The political targeting cases we’ve been asking about for two years will be at the top of the agenda,” the congressional aide said. The aide said the State Department has stifled requests for information, citing ongoing internal investigations already looking into the issue, an excuse some in Congress find risible.

“The idea that Congress can’t conduct its own investigations while the OIG and OSC are investigating doesn’t pass the smell test,” the aide added. “Ask Secretary Pompeo if he would’ve accepted that answer when he was on the Benghazi Select Committee.”

We wont get ahead of the investigations, said Palladino, the State Department deputy spokesman. While these investigations continue, the Department will fully cooperate with the OIG and OSC. We will not be in a position to discuss this matter further.”

As part of the effort, Democratic staffers will devote particular attention to the role of the White House Domestic Policy Council, headed by Stephen Miller, in gutting U.S. refugee resettlement policy. Miller has exercised outsized influence in the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other federal agencies through a network of like-minded political appointees deployed in key federal agencies.

Congressional lawmakers also intend to scrutinize Trump’s financial entanglements with foreign governments, from the spending habits of foreign diplomats at the Trump International Hotel in Washington to overseas property deals or alleged foreign contributions to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“There has to be some accounting for the Trump investments or the investments in Trump’s properties,” another congressional aide said.

“The Trump family and organization, based on press accounts, have had puzzling relationships with the Qataris, the Emiratis, and the Saudis,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told FP. “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.”

Investigators suspect Trump’s tax returns could be critical to unraveling his financial ties with foreign leaders. Rep. Richard Neal, in line to chair the House Ways and Means Committee, told CNN that he would probably request the president’s tax returns as part of an investigation into possible violation of the emoluments clause, a constitutional provision that prohibits federal officials from receiving gifts, titles, or offices from a foreign power.

“I think we would all be comfortable if this was done on a voluntary basis,” Neal told CNN. “If they would resist the overture, then I think you could probably see a long and grinding court case.”

Update, Nov. 7, 2018: This article was updated to include comments from the State Department deputy spokesman.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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