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Democrats Plan Trump Investigations


Where does an investigation of President Trump go next? This week's public testimony by his former lawyer Michael Cohen included many other names, and for House Democrats, each of those names is a lead. Democratic Representative Jackie Speier asked Michael Cohen this.


JACKIE SPEIER: Did Mr. Trump tell you to offer Vladimir Putin a free penthouse?


SPEIER: So where does that come from?

COHEN: That was Felix Sater. It was a marketing stunt.

INSKEEP: There's a name. Felix Sater - he's a New York real estate developer involved in then-presidential candidate Donald Trump's effort to build a Trump Tower Moscow. Now Sater is expected to be called before a House committee. NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell is here to talk through the Democrats' strategy. Hi there, Kelsey.


INSKEEP: How are the Democrats building a case?

SNELL: Well, they kind of want to build a chain of information. And that's what we heard a bit there from Speier. And we - and the way we basically saw it is Democrats were keeping a list. They were - every time Cohen would say a name, every time that he didn't have an answer for a question, they would ask, who in Trump's inner circle did have the answer? - and they wrote it down. And Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, was pretty explicit about what he was doing. Here's what he said at the hearing.


ELIJAH CUMMINGS: And we're going to - probably going to be doing some interviews of some folks. All you have to do is follow the transcript. If there were names that were mentioned or records that were mentioned during the hearing, we're going to take a look at all of that. We'll go through. We'll figure out who we want to talk to. And we'll bring them in.

SNELL: That's Cummings talking to reporters right after the hearing wrapped up. And in the hearing, we heard names like Allen Weisselberg, who is the CFO of the Trump Organization, and David Pecker, who runs the National Enquirer. And we even heard the name Donald Trump Jr. So his name might be on the list. Now we're starting to see them follow through with Sater for the first time. And in this case, it seems that they want to talk to him about those plans for how Trump Tower in Moscow came together. And in particular, some members seem really interested in how involved Trump was and if that involvement lasted until the time that he was in office.

INSKEEP: Now Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, very famous member of Congress - freshman member of Congress at this point - was on this committee, asked a number of questions of Cohen. And she, on a number of occasions when Cohen didn't have an answer, asked specifically - would we be able to learn more about that if we had the president's tax returns? And Cohen was answering yes. There's another lead, I suppose.

SNELL: Right. Actually, she was quite effective in her questioning in getting Cohen to list names and to point out where the information might exist. And the tax returns are really interesting because, remember, a lot of the committees that are not just Oversight - and the intel committee that we were hearing about today - want to get involved. Committees like the Ways and Means Committee - who could be potentially looking into Trump's tax returns. They've already floated that this is something that they're getting started on. And, you know, Oversight still has a lot of questions about Trump's business dealings, like whether or not he violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution, you know, with his ownership of Trump Hotel here in D.C. So there are a lot of questions. And it won't just be limited to the Russia investigation.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And let's remember Ways and Means is the committee that has the legal authority to request any American's tax return and have a look at it. But it's something they need to move carefully on - that they don't want to be totally politicized and create the possibility of many other people's tax returns being asked for. So you would need to build a case. And that - what sounds like the Democrats are doing. Now while all of this is happening in public, there's also a private line of questioning of Michael Cohen, right?

SNELL: Right. And that's happening primarily in the intelligence committees, both in the House and in the Senate - though primarily in the House right now - and they have a really different focus from Oversight, which is where Cohen was in public this week. Oversight's interested in his domestic dealings, whereas intel cares about his interactions with Russia and other foreign entities. And that's part of the reason that his interviews with them this week were behind closed doors. And the future interviews that they are expecting to have with him before he goes to jail in May - those are probably going to be behind closed doors, as well, because they can get into classified information and go down paths that relate to the Mueller investigation, which is all stuff that isn't public yet. Though, you know, there are some efforts to make as much public as possible, they need to keep some of this classified right now.

INSKEEP: Well, Kelsey, let's keep talking about classified information because there's a report in The New York Times and The Washington Post overnight about President Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner and access to classified information. The report is that the president, in spite of public statements to the contrary, ordered the government to give a security clearance to Jared Kushner even when other officials raised questions about doing that. What is the concern here?

SNELL: Well, the question that is coming up - particularly here in Congress - is, how did the security clearance process happen for this whole White House? Because for the president to go around the recommendations of the intelligence community - while he has the authority to do that, it is outside of the way things are typically done. And Elijah Cummings, the chairman of the oversight committee, has already requested information from the White House. He says that he hasn't received anything so far in an investigation into security clearances that was launched in January. And he is suggesting he could compel the White House to respond with his power, in reference to his power to subpoena people.

INSKEEP: Kelsey, thanks for the insight, as always.

SNELL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.