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A former top Justice Department attorney who retired under Trump is now House Democrats’ lead lawyer

Nancy Pelosi isn't messing around.

Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, and Mike Pence in the Oval Office of the White House on December 11, 2018. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, and Mike Pence in the Oval Office of the White House on December 11, 2018. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Democrats are just days away from having real oversight of Trump’s administration for the first time — and the presumed incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sent Trump a message about what to expect from the new Congress on Friday.

Pelosi tapped Douglas Letter — a former top attorney in the Department of Justice (DOJ) who served under Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump before retiring in March — as the House’s new lead lawyer.

“I am eager to apply my litigation experience as I take on the challenges and opportunities that come with the important position of House General Counsel,” said Letter in a statement from Pelosi’s office.

Legal observors, including BuzzFeed News legal editor Chris Geidner and NPR DOJ reporter Carrie Johnson, described the move as a significant development.

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The House general counsel provides legal assistance to members of Congress and their staff, as well as represents the House in matters of litigation. That means Letter would oversee House efforts to exert subpoena power over the Trump administration.

Letter has previously written in defense of the public interest in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. In September, he wrote an op-ed arguing that claims of executive privilege — a line of argument the president often invokes — would not apply to Mueller’s final report.

“[I]f the President makes the dangerous and foolish decision to keep Mueller’s work from the American people, outrage should be directed not at legal doctrines involving executive privilege, but at a President who will have made a most regrettable decision,” Letter concluded.

Letter is highly respected in legal circles. When Letter’s retirement after four decades of “distinguished” DOJ work was announced earlier this year, Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes noted that the departure of someone who “represented administrations of both parties through some of their toughest litigations” did not reflect well on Trump.

Letter’s DOJ retirement party was reportedly attended by Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Neil Gorsuch.

After flipping 40 House seats in last month’s midterms — the most for the party in a single election since Watergate — Democrats are making big plans for the subpoena power that will accompany their new House majority, which will be seated on January 3.

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Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee intend to seek the president’s tax returns, which Trump has obscured from the public even though disclosure was standard for all presidential candidates since Nixon. The committee chair, Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), can obtain “any taxpayer’s records from the IRS for confidential review.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who will chair the powerful House Intelligence Committee, has hired experts in money laundering and “forensic accounting” as he prepares to investigate the president’s personal finances.

Soon-to-be House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced on Wednesday that his party will hold hearings on ICE’s treatment of detained migrants following the deaths of two young children in the custody of the U.S. government this month.

The new House majority — now with Letter’s assistance — will also seek to provide crucial protection for Mueller’s investigation. Democrats now “have the ability to compel production of evidence and to hold public hearings on any unresolved issue that might have fallen under Mueller’s purview, or even beyond” if Trump fires the special counsel or tries to bury its findings.