WASHINGTON — As Donald Trump prepares to take office next month, House Democrats are gearing up for a potential ethics showdown and all-out messaging war with the president-elect over the next four years.
But because Democrats are in the minority, figuring out how to provide oversight with their less-than-willing Republican counterparts has been difficult. So Democrats are finding unofficial ways to sidestep the political reality they face in the House, which is that they are not running the show.
"The fact that we're not in the majority doesn't mean we don't have a voice. And if we have to find that voice by wiring around the official committee structure, we will do so," Rep. Gerry Connolly told BuzzFeed News. "We will provide relentless and implacable oversight for this president and his administration, with or without Republican cooperation."
House Democrats have taken the usual messaging tactics to voice their discontent beyond the norm.
Just weeks before Trump takes office, a panel of Democrats met with ethics experts to highlight their concerns about potential conflicts of interest in his administration, an event designed to get their concerns about Trump's presidency on the record outside of the official committee structure.
At the helm of the effort was Rep. Elijah Cummings, ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He and other Democratic members of Congress, including Connolly, hosted the forum, where ethics experts were asked to speak to the conflicts of interest Trump could face when he becomes president.
One catch: The forum was not an official hearing due to Democrats' inability to call one, since they are in the minority party.
Republican members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform were invited to the forum, but none attended. The idea that Trump's potential conflicts should not be a partisan issue was stressed multiple times, but Rep. John Sarbanes argued that Republicans' lack of attendance forced the conversation to have an air of partisanship.
"If Republicans want his administration to be successful, I'm going to assume that most of them do, then they should have an appetite for his addressing these conflicts of interest," Sarbanes told BuzzFeed News after the forum. "I think the public is going to play a very important role here because as people begin to focus on these conflicts and start to process it... then they're going to start to put pressure on the president and Republicans and they may realize, hey this is something that we've got to pay some real attention to."
In the meantime, Republicans say it is too early to be concerned about potential conflicts of interest.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, recently told the Associated Press that "[Trump] needs time to get his affairs in order. When he becomes the president we'll start providing some oversight of that."
Trump, whose business interests have put him under intense scrutiny, has faced criticism that his unusual business affairs could result in "unprecedented" conflicts of interest for him as president. Based on this forecast House Democrats are already putting the pressure on themselves.
"It is my hope that the light we shed on the President-elect’s potential conflicts of interests will spur him to completely divest from his family business and put his assets in a blind trust. If he does not, and the conflicts persist into his Presidency, I would hope that Congress on a bipartisan basis will uphold its vital oversight responsibility," said Rep. Adam Schiff in an email statement to BuzzFeed News. "But Democrats stand ready to scrutinize the President-elect’s adherence to high ethical standards, even if we must do so alone."
The forum was just one of the ways Democrats are working around their minority status to make their voices heard. Another is sending letters highlighting concerns about Trump's presidency and business interests. Cummings has already sent out letters on the issue to everyone from Chaffetz to Reince Priebus, Trump's soon-to-be chief-of-staff.
"I think we're going to use every organ at our command," Connolly said, adding that House Democrats could speak to their concerns in media interviews, floor speeches and communication with voters as well. "We have lots of avenues in which to pursue this issue, and we're going to."
Connolly, who called Trump the GOP's "meal ticket," said he doesn't see Republicans on the Hill joining forces with Democrats to address the ethical questions that Trump's election has spurred. He added that Democratic members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will continue to pursue initiatives like the panel.
Meanwhile, Democrats are doing what they can to reach Trump himself, albeit indirectly. Evidence throughout the forum indicated that their words were meant to reach Trump. At one point, Cummings asked the panelists what their advice to the president-elect would be.
The panelists were also asked in a reality TV-style manner what they would rate Trump on a scale of one to 10 on how diligent he has been in addressing concerns regarding ethical issues and conflicts of interest. (The panelists gave low ratings, with the highest being a two.)
All signs indicate the hearing was likely just the beginning of what is to be expected from House Democrats with Trump in the White House.
"I think if we continue to keep this pressure up, that additional steps will be taken, and if not a leap by [Trump] willingly, a push by the rest of us will send him over, and what should be done in the best interest of the people of the United States will take place," Rep. Stacey Plaskett, a delegate from the Virgin Islands, at the close of the panel. "So Mr. Cummings, I'm here to help you with a shoulder to make that push to ensure that the integrity of the presidency is upheld."
Lissandra Villa is a politics reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Lissandra Villa at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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