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House Dems hiring lawyers for potential probes

A recent committee job posting reviewed by CNN asked for legislative counsels with a variety of expertise, indicating House Democrats are looking to hire a batch of attorneys as they prepare for what may be the largest congressional investigation of a sitting president in modern history.

Posted: Dec. 30, 2018 8:30 PM
Updated: Dec. 30, 2018 8:50 PM

The House Judiciary Committee is looking for a few good lawyers.

A recent committee job posting reviewed by CNN asked for legislative counsels with a variety of expertise: "criminal law, immigration law, constitutional law, intellectual property law, commercial and administrative law (including antitrust and bankruptcy), or oversight work."

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee needs lawyers, too, posting jobs for "executive branch investigative counsel."

The advertisements give a window into the Democratic recruiting that's ramped up ahead of the party gaining subpoena power for the first time in eight years when it takes over the House in January.

While Democrats publicly talk up their interest in focusing on legislative priorities like health care and voting rights -- not to mention ending the ongoing partial government shutdown -- they are quietly preparing for what will likely be the largest congressional investigation of a sitting president in recent memory. Party leaders and committee chairs have spent months ironing out potential targets, from President Donald Trump's taxes and business dealings to the conduct of current and former Cabinet members.

To handle all this investigative work, House Democrats are expected to double the number of their staffers. Though they can't officially hire anyone until the new Congress is seated, plans are well underway, with House members saying that candidates -- especially those with specific investigative skills, from money laundering to contracting -- are coming from all directions.

"They're finding us," said Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington state Democrat who will be taking over the House Armed Services Committee, which will have a significant piece of foreign policy oversight. "There are a lot of Democratic refugees out there after the Republicans took over the House, the Senate and the White House."

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New York Democrat who's a member of the Oversight Committee, said she ends up forwarding some of the resumes that come to her office to committee staffers in charge of hiring. "They are people with law degrees and experience just wanting to be part of this historic moment," she said.

The hiring efforts started early. One Democratic House committee posted a help-wanted ad on a job board frequented by Capitol Hill staffers the day after the November 6 midterm elections. The post, which did not name the committee, sought "investigative counsel to conduct congressional investigations and advise on policy matters related to oversight of the executive branch."

"Responsibilities include staffing letters and subpoenas, conducting interviews, organizing and staffing hearings and preparing memos, talking points, statements and reports as necessary," the listing stated. "Previous congressional or executive branch experience preferred, but candidates with diverse backgrounds and experiences are encouraged to apply. Candidates must have attention to detail, excellent writing skills, excel under pressure and have a sense of humor."

One person familiar with the Democratic ramp-up in staffing told CNN, "There are a lot of people willing to take pay cuts to come do that work."

"We're being deluged with resumes, really impressive resumes. There will be no shortage of good candidates. The difficulty will be choosing among them," said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, who will lead the House Intelligence Committee next year and will play a key role in investigating Russian election interference.

Schiff has signaled that he also wants to focus on questions about possible money laundering and the Trump Organization. A source familiar with the Intelligence Committee's planning tells CNN that Schiff is looking to hire investigative staff with expertise in financial crimes.

That could overlap with work that Rep. Maxine Waters of California intends to pursue. Waters will lead the Financial Services Committee, and has been pressing for an investigation into potential money laundering, particularly involving Trump's loans with Deutsche Bank.

Coordination

To ensure investigations don't devolve into a confusing mass of overlapping inquiries and turf wars, coordination will be key for likely incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. Likely Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland has agreed to meet weekly with committee chairs to discuss priorities, according to a source familiar with the matter. Party leaders have also told incoming committee chairs to work out turf fights in private rather than hashing out who has jurisdiction over what in public.

That won't be easy. Many of the big stories and scandals don't fit neatly into one committee or another, and certain chairmen will have far more authority than others. That's particularly true with Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the incoming chair of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform committee, which has sweeping authority over the entire federal government.

In a recent interview with CNN, Cummings downplayed the potential of any turf fights. "We're not going to step on each other's toes," he said. "We want to make sure that if there is jurisdiction that we work that out in private and then go to our committees and do what we have to do."

Aides warn that it will likely be months before the public sees the full scope of investigations.

"I think Democrats will be ready, but there is also going to be hundreds of thousands of documents requested and produced. It is going to be a little bit of drinking out of a fire hose in the beginning," one source familiar with planning told CNN.

While there's been careful planning already underway about which investigations to pursue, new developments could alter the Democrats' strategy. After a second child died in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection this month, for instance, Pelosi announced that Democrats would be investigating the issue.

Pelosi also announced on Friday she plans to appoint Douglas Letter to be the new House general counsel, a nonpartisan role that could nonetheless be pivotal in court battles that may erupt between the House and Trump administration next year.

Letter had a 40-year career at the Justice Department before retiring earlier this year, including as White House associate counsel in the Clinton administration. In September, he wrote an op-ed raising concerns about whether the Trump Justice Department would allow Mueller's final report to become public -- an issue that now could wind up on his desk.

Protecting Mueller

For Democrats emphasizing the need to focus on legislative rather than investigative priorities, there is one move that could arguably do both: passing legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller.

According to one Democratic aide, a bill to protect the special counsel from interference is expected to be among the first items Democrats pursue. Such legislation passed the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year but was never put to a vote on the floor. That bill will give House Democrats an avenue to pressure the GOP-led Senate to act, too, although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has shown no interest in taking up the measure, even after outgoing Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona launched a blockade on confirming judges over the lack of a floor vote on the measure.

"The Mueller investigation has to be protected, absolutely," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat. "There's a lot of consensus on our side that will be a key priority."

The Mueller probe provides an interesting test for Democratic chairmen and chairwomen. While it could do some of the work for them by providing new details, it will also tempt many of them to go after what he uncovers.

The sentencing of Michael Cohen, for instance -- in which federal prosecutors said Trump had directed Cohen to commit campaign finance crimes by paying women not to speak about alleged affairs -- makes him a potential witness before multiple committees.

Cummings said on CNN's "State of the Union" earlier this month that he wanted Cohen to testify in January, and that his committee could be the appropriate venue.

"Quite possibly," Cummings told CNN when asked whether his committee would investigate Cohen's crimes. "We're still trying to figure out who's doing what. Because the last thing we want to do is stepping on each other's toes. Somebody's going to get into it."

Cohen has already testified before Schiff's committee, admitting in his November guilty plea that he had lied before the panel about the proposed Trump Tower Moscow project. Schiff might want to haul Cohen back in to explain himself on that matter, though Schiff was already ceding the investigation of payments to women to Cummings the day after the story broke.

Trump's taxes

At the center of Democrats' efforts is the pursuit of Trump's tax returns. While modern presidents have handed over their returns willingly, Democrats are prepared to force the issue, arguing Trump has defied precedent.

Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, the incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he intends to use an arcane IRS code that allows his committee to ask the Treasury Department for the President's returns.

Neal -- a business-minded Democrat who has earned a reputation as a willing negotiator -- had hoped Trump would be willing to negotiate and turn over his tax returns without a fight. But in recent weeks, comments from Trump's allies have made it clear that asking nicely would be a waste of time. A source close to the process told CNN that Neal was prepared to make a formal request to the Treasury Department in the new Congress. When that would take place was still undecided.

"We're not doing this by a knee jerk," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, a Democrat from New Jersey. "We've got research up the gazoo behind us and the law's on our side."

Depending on what's in them, Trump's tax returns could provide information that would feed investigations by other committees.

"I think there's a lot of information in them that would be of interest to my committee. For example, we'd like to know exactly what our, what has been the sources of income for this President," Cummings said. "He's made all kinds of claims that he doesn't have relationships with Russia. He told us he didn't have any relationships with Russia; we come to find out that's not accurate. So there've been a lot of allegations, but I think the tax returns, where he has to swear that the information is accurate, that would tell us a lot."

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