Congress

Some House Oversight Democrats pumping the brakes on interviews with Trump family members

Some members feel a public spectacle might not be the best place for following threads from Michael Cohen’s testimony

President Donald Trump points to the crowd after accepting the GOP nomination for president at the 2016 Republican National Convention. Behind him are, from left, daughter Ivanka Trump, her husband Jared Kushner, daughter in law Vanessa Trump, and son Donald Trump Jr. The president's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, implicated three of Trump’s children and Kushner in possible criminal activity Wednesday in a House Oversight Committee hearing. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

After Chairman Elijah Cummings suggested earlier this week that his House Committee on Oversight and Reform could try to schedule interviews with members of the Trump family, including the president’s sons Donald Jr. and Eric and daughter Ivanka, some Democrats urged caution about making such moves.

The president’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen implicated Trump’s family members in multiple crimes in his public testimony on Wednesday. Specifically, Cohen described Donald Jr. and Eric’s involvement in an illegal hush money scheme to buy the silence of two of the president’s former mistresses, onetime Playboy model Karen McDougal and pornographic film actress Stephanie Clifford, better known by her stage name Stormy Daniels.

But while some Democrats want to haul the rest of the family in front of congressional committees, some Democrats on Oversight have cautioned that public hearings with Trump’s children might not be the optimal forum to follow up on Cohen’s claims.

“I think the optics of that are very dangerous. ... I think that could backfire,” Democratic Rep. Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia said on CNN Thursday of bringing in Trump’s children for public interviews.

Cohen vs. the GOP: The many defenses for Trump

Democratic investigators in the Oversight and Intelligence Committees, as well as numerous others, are ever mindful of not overplaying their hand in myriad probes of Trump’s business empire and conflicts of interest, the president’s 2016 campaign, and his possible ties to foreign countries.

Trump and his Republican allies in the House are pushing hard on the message that House Democrats are so focused on tearing down Trump that they aren’t able to legislate. Democrats have said they can “walk and chew gum at the same time” by investigating charges of corruption in Trump’s administration and business history while also working on bipartisan bills in a divided government.

Mixed signals

For his part, Cummings is treading carefully, making sure he and his Oversight Committee staff methodically scrutinize the Cohen transcript and gather input from other Democratic members before planning their next move.

“We’ll go through, we’ll figure out who we want to talk to and we’ll bring them in,” Cummings told reporters after the Cohen hearing Wednesday.

But Democrats on the committee are sending him mixed signals.

Some are eager to use their public stage to grill Donald Trump Jr. and possibly his siblings about allegations 

“What they’re doing is affecting the public, so it should be out in front of everyone so everyone knows what’s going on,” said Mike McQuerry, a senior aide for Oversight Committee Rep. Stacey Plaskett of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The committee’s goal is not “to bring people before the committee for a dog and pony show,” McQuerry noted.

“The issue is, if you want to bring members of the family in, who do you bring and when do you bring them? You just have to be very practical and very smart about who you bring up here,” he said.

But other lawmakers and aides have privately opined that not only could such a public spectacle backfire in view of everyday Americans — the need for heightened security measures could make such a hearing logistically infeasible.

“The Secret Service would have to close down the entire [Rayburn House Office Building],” where the committee holds its hearings, one senior Democratic aide told Roll Call.

That’s an exaggeration, of course, but the safety precautions for bringing in one of the president’s children for a public hearing could present a logistical nightmare for the U.S. Capitol Police and committee staff.

Plus there’s the fact that the House Intelligence Committee, which interviewed Cohen on Thursday, already spoke with Donald Trump Jr. last Congress, when Republicans were in the majority. The new Democratic chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, has expressed interest in bringing Trump’s eldest son back for a follow-up interview. Democrats felt that the old Republican Chairman Devin Nunes, now the committee’s ranking member, cut their 2017 meeting with Trump Jr. short.

The private nature of Intelligence Committee interviews also offers lawmakers the opportunity to ask witnesses questions that relate to ongoing Justice Department investigations and more sensitive government information — an advantage over the more public-facing Oversight Committee.

Even with reporters lurking in the hallways outside the locked committee room and probing lawmakers for information as they come and go, Intel members tend to remain more tight-lipped about the testimony they receive from witnesses.

Weisselberg ‘interest number one’

Connolly and other Democrats have been quick to point out that they might not even need to bring in Trump’s sons to corroborate Cohen’s claims about the illegal hush money payments to McDougal and Clifford. There’s someone else who knows even more: Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg.

“He became interest number one. He’s the next one to come forward that people want to hear from,” one Democratic aide with knowledge of the deliberations told Roll Call after the Cohen hearing of a potential hearing with Weisselberg.

Weisselberg has been a Trump ally for decades, dating back to when the president’s father, Fred Trump, was calling the shots.

He has provided limited cooperation on the allegations surrounding the hush money payments to McDougal and Clifford as part of an immunity agreement with federal prosecutors in New York, according to NBC News reporting.

“He knows everything. He’s been there 40 years,” Connolly said. “He has the keys to the kingdom.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.