Democrats Take on Trump's Conflicts of Interest

"Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and unfortunately [Trump] is slowly but surely shutting out the sunlight," says one Congressman

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings. Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty

The Trump-Russia investigations may be grabbing most of the headlines and sucking much of the air out of Washington these days, but Democrats continue to try and push President Trump and his administration to end the myriad conflicts of interest that are entangling the president and his family.

While the attorneys general for the District of Columbia and Maryland announced they're suing Trump for making profit off foreign governments, Democrats are seemingly powerless in their attempts to keep the president in check: They no longer have the keys to the White House, and they don't yield any gavels on Capitol Hill. House Speaker Paul Ryan is refusing to comply with Democrats' requests to investigate Trump and his family, and the White House has told federal agencies not to respond to the letters flying from Capitol Hill signed only by Dems – which brought a scathing rebuke from even the Republican Senate Judiciary Committee chair, Chuck Grassley.

But Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform think they may have found a way around the majority's blockade: They're employing a little known law from 1928 that says if a mere seven members of the panel send a document request to an executive branch agency, the White House must comply with the request.

The so-called seven member rule "is not a regulation or guideline, but a statute that was passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President," the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings, and his Democratic colleagues wrote in a letter to acting General Services Administration chief Tim Horne.

"Although you may wish to limit oversight from Democratic Members of Congress through a misguided policy that responds only to Republican Chairmen, compliance with federal law is not an optional exercise that may be overridden by a new Trump Administration policy," the letter continues.

For now, Democrats on the panel are only using the provision to request documents on the federal government's lease for the Trump International Hotel, which sits mere blocks from the White House and has become the place to be for lobbyists, Trump associates and foreign officials alike in Trump's Washington. Democrats say they've been sitting on the seven member rule, but the silence from the White House has forced their hands.

"It's very rare" that the rule gets used, but "within our committee, within Oversight, it's very widely known," Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch tells Rolling Stone. "We've threatened to resort to that in the past. We've never had to go there before, but in this case we did."

The Democrats have chosen to focus on the hotel in part because Trump still owns it – a clear violation of his lease with the federal government, which owns the building – though he denies he's involved in its daily operations. He's said he'd donate any money he makes from foreign entities who stay there – seemingly his way of addressing potential constitutional violations – though the hotel has informed Congress it has no intention of doing that.

The hotel has become "the symbol of complete disregard for the lines of ethics, the boundaries of ethics, the conflicts of interest" in the Trump administration, says Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes. "I think it's something that resonates in people's minds, and frankly every day you see people trying to curry favor with the administration – booking receptions and other kinds of things at the hotel."

Unlike every other modern president, Trump has refused calls to put his assets in a blind trust. His son, Eric, has also said he plans to keep giving his father profit reports on the family's sprawling global business enterprise, which Democrats say is the very definition of a conflict of interest for a sitting president whose every tweet, proposed policy and speech can move global markets.

"It's breathtaking," Sarbanes says. The administration passes "an ethical policy that has so many waivers in place that it swallows it up and completely negates it. They say they're going to observe certain lines – but in the next breath almost, they demonstrate that they have no concept of what those lines and boundaries are."

Republicans say Democratic complaints are sour grapes – that they haven't gotten over Hillary Clinton's stunning loss to a rookie politician known for being a reality TV star and real estate magnate who fathered birtherism and ran a campaign steeped in racism, sexism and xenophobia. They also accuse Dems of highlighting things like the hotel lease because they're merely gearing up for the next election – that's why many in the GOP support the White House effort to keep Democrats from conducting oversight on their own.

"Do I think that the White house is correct that 540 House and Senate members and delegates should all get anything their hearts desire? No," Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who chaired the Oversight Committee when President Obama was in office, tells Rolling Stone. "It's a question of the rules. But during the time when the Democrats were in the majority, they never considered a rule that gave the minority any standing, and President Obama never recognized that standing."

But Democrats say their effort to peer inside the Trump business operations isn't about electioneering, and is rather about basic ethics. They say this White House – from its billionaire cabinet members to the lobbyists who are now high up in agencies "overseeing" sectors of the economy they used profit from – has shown a stunning disregard for transparency and ethics.

"It's cynical and it's wrong, and importantly it's part of a broader pattern of the darkness with which this administration is progressing toward: removing access to visitor logs, threaten[ing] to cut off daily briefings, failure to keep with modern American history [by releasing his] tax returns," says Democratic Rep. Dennis Heck. "He's headed towards increasing darkness. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and unfortunately he is slowly but surely shutting out the sunlight."