The congressman who could become President Donald Trump’s recurring political nightmare has photos on his office walls of himself with anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, pathbreaking boxer Muhammad Ali and civil rights activist Coretta Scott King.
Each were fighters of a sort, and Rep. Elijah Cummings says he is, too. The Baltimore Democrat’s battles usually involve pushing back as best he can on Trump administration policies and practices.
He might possess a booming voice, but Cummings — the top Democrat on the Republican-controlled House Oversight and Government Reform Committee — lacks the ability to compel documents or witnesses, meaning his 64 subpoena requests remained tucked away for now like dormant volcanoes waiting to erupt.
That might change. If Democrats win control of the House of Representatives in the November elections, Cummings is in line to ascend to the chairmanship of a committee with the authority — so far untapped — to demand documents related to Trump’s personal finances and policies, as well as possible agency abuses.
"You would see probably a nonstop parade of hearings into matters involving the Trump administration," said Todd Eberly, coordinator of public policy studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “Elijah Cummings very quickly becomes a critically important person.”
Democrats must flip at least 23 Republican-held seats in the midterm elections Nov. 6 to claim a majority of the 435, giving them control of the House agenda, the speaker’s office and committees.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report projects the “likeliest outcome” is a Democratic gain of 25 to 40 seats.
Republicans counter that the election toll to their party will be minimized by stock market gains, relatively low unemployment and other economic indicators. “We are winning on just about every front,” Trump tweeted last month “and for that reason there will not be a Blue Wave, but there might be a Red Wave!”
The University of Virginia Center for Politics recently reported that various polling "contains bright spots for both parties” but suggests a Democratic edge.
“A Democratic House would be the nightmare Trump imagines it to be,” said Larry Sabato, the center’s director. “Yes, there will be loads of investigations about a long list of outrages and controversies in Trump’s first two years, plus follow-up to the Mueller report whenever it is released,” he said, referring to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Russians and Trump associates during the 2016 election campaign.
Cummings, a 22-year congressional veteran, replied “That’s a bit much” when asked in an interview whether he might become Trump’s “nightmare.”
But he broached the subject himself a few minutes later.
“Are we going to be the nightmare? It's in the eyes of the beholder,” he said.
The White House declined to comment for this article.
For months, Cummings and his staff have been compiling subpoenas for consideration by Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the committee.
Almost all of the 64 requests begin the same way. “Dear Mr. Chairman,” they say on the committee’s letterhead. “I am writing to request that you issue a subpoena … ”
Cummings has sought documents related to immigrant family separation policies, security clearances, patient protections in the Affordable Care Act and private email accounts allegedly used by senior White House officials, among other issues.
Cummings said none of the 64 subpoena motions has been granted, and that the attitude of Republicans is: “I’m not giving you a damn thing.”
In an email response, a spokeswoman for Gowdy did not address the denial of Cummings’ requests for subpoenas but said one had recently been issued. The Sept. 14 subpoena was supported by Cummings, although it was not one of the 64.
The subpoena directed a Department of Homeland Security attorney to answer questions as part of the committee’s investigation into whether the Transportation Security Administration retaliated against whistleblowers. TSA, which is part of Homeland Security, has told the committee it is working to fairly address whistleblower concerns.
To Cummings, the ability to order more documents would allow the panel to show government abuses rather than merely discuss them.
To illustrate the distinction, he cites the 1960s civil rights movement, of which many of his heroes – some pictured on his wall – were a part. His longtime mentor is Larry Gibson, the Baltimore attorney and author who was active in the movement.
“They were siccing dogs on African-Americans and using the water hoses. And it came on television and the world got a chance to truly see what was happening,” Cummings said. “It made a difference. I think transparency is always positive.”
Cummings, 67, said recent health issues wouldn’t affect his ability to be chairman. Last year, he underwent a minimally invasive heart procedure, which led to an infection that kept him in the hospital longer than expected. He was later hospitalized for a knee infection and uses a cane but says his mobility is improving.
He easily won his party’s nomination for a 13th term, and faces Republican Richmond Davis and Libertarian David Griggs in the Nov. 6 general election.
A former Maryland state delegate and trial attorney, Cummings is known on Capitol Hill for his boisterous questioning of witnesses.
“I see Elijah Cummings get mad almost every day,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin, the Montgomery County Democrat who serves with him on the committee.
Raskin said the anger isn’t “hateful,” but rather is directed at injustice.
Last spring, Cummings grew annoyed when a Justice Department official wouldn't elaborate on the Trump administration's decision to include a question asking people their citizenship status on the 2020 census.
"I asked you, ‘Did you talk to your boss?’ " Cummings shouted. "You mean you're going to tell me that you can't answer a question as to whether you talked to your boss, who we pay?"
A decade ago, he memorably questioned Roger Clemens about alleged steroid use, telling the former baseball superstar: "It's hard to believe you, sir. I hate to say that. You're one of my heroes."
If he becomes chairman, Cummings said, he would take a fresh look at which of the 64 subpoenas he would still like to see issued, and what new areas he might explore. He said his agenda would likely include probing the administration's prescription drug policies. A plan laid out by Trump in May relies on increasing market competition and reducing regulatory constraints so drugs can get to market faster and less expensively. The plan did not include direct negotiations by Medicare to lower prices for seniors, a strategy long embraced by Democrats and by Trump during the campaign.
Cummings also said he wants to explore why the administration isn’t supporting the Obama-era requirement that insurers must cover people with pre-existing conditions. The Justice Department has argued that the requirement is part of a flawed law — Obamacare.
Cummings won’t rule out what would be a particularly high-profile effort — trying to force Trump to release his tax returns. “I'm going to go wherever the evidence leads me,” he said.
That effort could fall to another committee, such as Ways and Means or Finance, and might lead to a legal showdown “over whether Congress can demand such action,” Eberly said.
One scenario Cummings won’t entertain is the possibility that some Democrats, emboldened if they capture a House majority, could push to impeach the president.
“I’m not even going to get into impeachment right now,” he said.
Analysts say impeachment talk could bolster Republican voter turnout in the midterm election by firing up Trump’s base, and perhaps alienating centrist voters. Removing Trump from office would require House and Senate votes, and the Senate is widely expected to remain in Republican hands.
“The risk of talking about impeachment is to scare off moderates, suburbanites, independents who would like a little relief from the level of bitter partisanship and the unbelievable gridlock,” said Floyd Ciruli, a Colorado-based independent pollster. “Their problem is, Mueller may come in with true high crimes and misdemeanors.”
If Mueller presented impeachment-worthy evidence, Ciruli said, the Democrats could get dragged into a debate “in spite of their leadership.”
In the meantime, “you’ve got to take these things step by step,” said Oversight member John Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat who represents portions of Baltimore City.
“Congressman Cummings and the committee staff have been constantly asking and pleading with the chairman and the Republican staff to issue subpoenas,” Sarbanes said. “I think what the Democrats should be talking about is bringing sunshine, transparency and accountability, and frankly going from there.”