Moving Beyond Mueller, Democrats Focus on Trump's Properties

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said taxpayer spending in Trump's business empire is "of grave concern" to his panel, which is weighing whether to recommend articles of impeachment

Casting their Trump nets beyond the special counsel's Russia report, House Democrats are demanding information about the spending of taxpayer money at the president's hotels and properties. They're seeing violations of the U.S. Constitution that some think could bolster the case for his impeachment.

There have been "multiple efforts" by President Donald Trump and administration officials to spend federal money at his properties, including Vice President Mike Pence's stay this week at a Trump resort in Doonbeg, Ireland, the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform Committees said in letters Friday to the White House, federal agencies and the Trump Organization.

The Democrats describe Pence's visit, and the possibility that next year's Group of Seven summit will be held at Trump's Miami-area Doral golf resort , as corrupting the presidency. Payments from foreign officials are particularly troubling, they say, considering the emoluments clause in the Constitution that bans the president from taking gifts from other governments.

"We have been focused on the Mueller report, and that is a very small part of the overall picture," said Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, a member of the Judiciary panel. "We must get America focused on the ongoing violations against basic constitutional principles."

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said taxpayer spending in Trump's business empire is "of grave concern" to his panel, which is weighing whether to recommend articles of impeachment. Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said his committee "does not believe that U.S. taxpayer funds should be used to personally enrich President Trump, his family and his companies."

The Democrats insist they are not pivoting their investigations away from former special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia report, which did not exonerate the president of obstruction of justice. But with many of their subpoenas bogged down in court, and Mueller's findings fading in the public's attention, a soft reboot is clearly underway, with a new focus on other allegations of possible wrongdoing by the president that lawmakers feel may resonate even more with the public.

Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, another Democrat on the Judiciary panel, says he believes the misuse of public funds or other examples of financial corruption make Americans especially angry. And while people have heard a lot about the Mueller report, they may know less about the emoluments clause, he said.

"I think you'll see a lot more of that in the coming months," Cicilline said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi echoed the Democratic investigators, calling Trump's properties "a cesspool of corruption" and a "black hole for taxpayers' money." She noted that Trump's trips to his Florida resort Mar-a-Lago can cost millions of dollars per visit.

"The American people deserve a government that serves their interests, not one that's being exploited to line the president's pockets," Pelosi wrote in a blog post.

Aside from reviewing his use of his properties, the Judiciary panel is also expected to investigate hush money payments that Trump paid to kill potentially embarrassing stories, and has subpoenaed the Department of Homeland Security to explore whether the president offered pre-emptive pardons for lawbreaking. More subpoenas are likely.

Other committees are investigating Trump's financial entanglements as well. The House intelligence and Financial Services panels are seeking records from two banks with which he did business, probing whether there may be links to money laundering.

House Intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., has long said that Congress should focus on following Trump's finances— a subject that Mueller stayed away from. In an interview on Friday, Schiff said his panel will continue on that track this fall, including Trump's business links to the Gulf region and his efforts before the 2016 election toward building a tower in Moscow.

Schiff said he thinks people's views are "pretty well dug in" on the Russia investigation.

"These other issues are also very powerful," he said. "This is a guy who promised to drain the swamp."

Looming over it all is the decision that has dogged Democrats since the 2016 elections: whether to move forward with Trump's impeachment, a step many on the left argue is long overdue but Pelosi has resisted.

While a narrow majority of House Democrats want to start impeachment proceedings, Pelosi has said she wants to wait for the resolution of lawsuits filed by the Judiciary panel after the White House blocked many of its witnesses. She is also preaching caution, saying more public support is needed. Many moderates in the caucus, who helped win the Democratic majority last year, agree with her.

"I've been traveling all of August," said Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas. "This is not an issue people bring up. I think a lot of people would rather just vote him out, vote the president out."

Other Democrats argue that impeachment is a process without a payoff, because the Republican-led Senate would never remove the president from office.

Raskin, one of the Democrats backing impeachment proceedings, says, "That's a legitimate thing for us to think about, and it's a political puzzle we have to solve over the next few months."

For now, the impeachment debate is likely to stay within the confines of the Judiciary panel as the investigations play out this fall. Nadler said in his letter to the White House that the panel was asking for the documents as part of its impeachment probe.

"The impact that the president's business interests may have on his official conduct and American foreign policy interests demands scrutiny by Congress — as does the use of taxpayer dollars on properties or businesses personally benefiting the president," Nadler wrote.

The request for documents included any communications about the decision making for where to host the next G-7 summit, including between the White House and the Secret Service and the White House and the State Department. The Oversight panel asked for documents related to Pence's trip, including an itemized list of costs.

Associated Press writer Andrew Taylor contributed.

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