Democrats turbocharge Trump probes

WASHINGTON: Democrats in the US House of Representatives have quietly tweaked a rule on taking secret depositions that is likely to give a boost to their investigations of President Donald Trump, his personal finances and his administration.
The little-noticed change, made since the Democrats took over majority control of the House earlier this month, will let staffers of House investigative committees take testimony from subpoenaed witnesses without a lawmaker being present.
By eliminating complications with lawmakers’ schedules, the change will let staffers work faster and range more widely, said former staffers and sources inside the committees that are launching several inquiries into Trump and his presidency.
The importance of this was underscored, legal experts said, when attorney general nominee William Barr indicated last week that he was unlikely to release the final report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller to lawmakers in its original format.
Mueller has been probing for many months Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, any collusion between Moscow and Trump’s campaign, and obstruction of justice. If Barr is confirmed and holds back on Mueller’s report, the rule change may help House investigators rapidly replicate Mueller’s work.
“Dropping the member requirement will give much more power to staff investigators in different committees, which will lead to increasingly dispersed and now unsupervised authority for investigations,” said Kristina Moore, a managing director at FTI Consulting and a former investigator for the House Oversight Committee when it was chaired by Republican Darrell Issa.
“This change to the House rules represents a further expansion of the majority’s oversight and investigations targets, for which everyone in the private sector needs to prepare,” Moore said.
The government shutdown caused by a standoff between Trump and Democrats over his proposed US-Mexico border wall has been center-stage in Washington for weeks, but Democrats have been moving ahead on plans to probe Trump and his administration.
On February 7, former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen is scheduled to testify to the House Oversight Committee, now chaired by Democrat Elijah Cummings. On the next day, acting US Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is slated to testify to the House Judiciary Committee.
Meanwhile, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani backtracked on Monday from earlier comments that Trump pursued a business deal to erect a tower bearing his name in Moscow throughout 2016, saying his statements “were hypothetical and not based on conversations I had with the President.”
Giuliani told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that Trump may have continued to pursue the project and had discussions about it with his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, until as late as October or November 2016, when Trump was closing in on his election victory.
Giuliani went a step further with the New York Times, where he quoted Trump saying the Trump Tower Moscow discussions were “going on from the day I announced to the day I won.” The Moscow deal ultimately did not materialise, but Giuliani’s remarks suggest that Trump’s discussions about the project with Cohen may have dragged on until the election, raising new questions for congressional investigators looking into possible ties between the president and Russia.
— Reuters