House Democrats are largely pursuing flashy, partisan, made-for-TV investigations targeting President Donald Trump, but one panel is taking a different approach — and getting results.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee is quietly amassing documents on allegations of politically-motivated retaliation at the State Department; it’s looking into whether Trump has violated foreign emoluments and conflict of interest rules; and lawmakers are working to find out more about the president’s relationship with Vladimir Putin and how he leads American foreign policy behind the scenes — all without the fanfare associated with the other committees’ work.
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The panel has secured wins on a number of fronts, and aides and lawmakers alike attribute that to the under-the-radar support they’re getting from Republicans, many of whom have grown exasperated with the president’s decisions on foreign policy and national security issues. It’s also a historically bipartisan committee that boasts a strong relationship between the top Democrat and Republican on the panel.
“People are concerned to know the relationship between Putin and Trump,” Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) said in an interview. “We’re working our way there.”
Engel added that he was letting the other key committees with oversight duties handle some of the more inflammatory issues: “Obviously, Judiciary’s going to talk about impeachment and things like that.”
The committee’s record on securing documents and witnesses isn’t flawless, mostly due to the Trump administration’s stonewalling of Democrats’ myriad inquiries targeting the president. But unlike other committees that have faced the same roadblocks, the Foreign Affairs Committee hasn’t issued a single subpoena, held an official in contempt of Congress or taken an issue to federal court to secure critical documents and witness testimony.
“We’re not looking to throw bombs or pick partisan fights. We’re just looking to get facts,” said a committee aide, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the panel’s work. “The steady, painstaking approach is producing results.”
These probes don’t often grab headlines, but they’re a centerpiece of Democrats’ efforts to dig into Trump’s posture toward Russia — whether it’s downplaying the threat of Russian interference in U.S. elections, or refusing to directly criticize Putin.
Engel isn’t a fire-breather; he’s not a fixture on cable news like other committee chairs; and unlike other Democratic committee leaders, he actually has a productive working relationship with his GOP counterpart, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas). McCaul’s office declined to comment for this story.
Democrats say that Engel’s low-profile, bipartisan strategy is paying off. Republicans participate in the committee’s negotiation sessions with the Trump administration, and they show acute interest in many of the investigations — creating bipartisan buy-in on hot-button probes that can’t be dismissed as partisan broadsides.
Last month, the committee secured an interview with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as part of their efforts to learn more about how Trump conducts himself on the world stage, both in front of the cameras and behind the scenes. Both Engel and McCaul attended the nearly eight-hour sitdown. The conversation focused on a number of foreign policy issues, including Trump’s handling of Russia and his private conversations with Putin.
“There really wasn’t daylight between the questions and the points that [Engel and McCaul] were making and the issues that they wanted to know more about,” another committee aide said when asked about the Tillerson interview.
And last week, the Foreign Affairs panel held a hearing on the Trump administration’s recent decision to bypass Congress to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies — a move that drew condemnation from McCaul and several other Republicans.
McCaul also backed Engel’s legislation earlier this year to block the Trump administration’s decision to lift sanctions on a Putin-connected Russian oligarch, and he opposed the president’s plan to cut off aid to Central American countries earlier this year amid the growing migrant crisis at the southern border.
That kind of bipartisan cooperation on the oversight front is virtually nonexistent within other committees, from the leadership down to the rank-and-file. Republican members of the Intelligence Committee have called on Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to step down from his post, and the Judiciary Committee has been engaged in bitter partisan fights over a potential impeachment inquiry and access to special counsel Robert Mueller’s files.
Republicans’ willingness to work with Engel reflects the party’s longstanding concerns with Trump’s foreign policy decisions and his posture on the world stage.
But even though the Foreign Affairs Committee isn’t singularly focused on the attention-grabbing portions of the Mueller report, the panel hasn’t been immune to the president’s efforts to resist Democrat-led inquiries.
The White House and the State Department flatly rejected the panel’s demand for documents that detail Trump’s private conversations with Putin, and Engel has yet to issue a subpoena for those records nearly three months later, saying he’s still mulling it over with the House general counsel.
That approach stands in stark contrast to the more aggressive posture Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) has adopted, issuing subpoenas to some of Mueller’s central witnesses to examine the obstruction of justice allegations against Trump more closely.
The White House has taken steps to prevent his former aides from testifying on Capitol Hill and providing documents to congressional committees, often making broad claims of executive privilege that Nadler says are baseless. At the same time, that committee recently secured access to some of Mueller’s “key” evidence, and other House committees have already won twice in federal court to obtain Trump’s financial records.
Yet Engel’s bipartisan approach, in particular on political retaliation at the State Department — in which political appointees are accused of retaliating against career officials who challenge them — is making for more effective investigations, according to aides.
“It’s one thing to say that I might not agree with your politics,” a committee aide said. “But I think there is bipartisan consensus that retaliating against someone who’s a career civil servant because of their politics is and should be unacceptable to both parties.”