RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Congressman Elijah Cummings has questions, questions about President Trump's administration.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It is Cummings' job to ask. He is the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
MARTIN: And he's now jostling with the committee's Republican chairman, Jason Chaffetz of Utah, over just how much to investigate.
INSKEEP: We reached Cummings after national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned, admitting he didn't tell the truth about conversations with Russia.
ELIJAH CUMMINGS: Flynn is very key. They said that he could possibly be blackmailed. And yet - and still he was sending and receiving top secrets of our government. And then, you know, when I look at the way Hillary Clinton was treated with regard to some emails, you know, it concerns me greatly.
INSKEEP: He wants Flynn investigated the same way. We spoke with Congressman Cummings on the same day that President Trump ripped him at a press conference. The president said he thought he had a meeting scheduled with Cummings but that the congressman backed out for political reasons. Congressman Cummings says that is a made-up story and that he is eager to learn more about Trump's aides and Russia.
CUMMINGS: I want to know exactly what was the relationship between the Trump campaign and the Russian hierarchy, what role Mr. Putin had in this. I want to know about any kind of communications before the election and after. And I want to know the extent of their efforts to interfere with our elections.
INSKEEP: As you know, your Republican colleagues want to focus on something else. They say the thing that needs to be investigated is leaks from intelligence agencies, which they see as an attack on the president. Are they right?
CUMMINGS: I have never been a big fan of leakers, to be frank with you, but you've got to understand what's happening here. It's not a partisan thing for many of them. They are concerned that their government may be going in a direction that is not healthy for our democracy. So they're looking for some way to get information out so that we will move more towards that more perfect union.
INSKEEP: When you speak about the motivations of the leakers, do you have particular knowledge of that? Have you heard from people on the intelligence agencies or individual whistleblowers if you will?
CUMMINGS: I've heard from a few people. And, keep in mind, if there's any committee that would likely hear from whistleblowers, it is the Government Oversight Committee because, on our committee, we have made it a bipartisan effort to always protect whistleblowers because, as I said, before, in many instances, that's the only way we can get information as to how to deal with waste, fraud and abuse.
INSKEEP: You mentioned the word bipartisan. How bipartisan has the Republican chairman, Jason Chaffetz, been so far in investigating this particular issue?
CUMMINGS: I don't think he's been too cooperative at all. He seems to be concerned about the leakers. But when it comes to the fact that we had 17 intelligence agencies unanimously saying that the Russians were trying to interfere with our elections, he seemed to have very little interest. Now, here recently, I think he's gotten a lot of pressure in his district. He just had a town hall meeting not long ago, and people were very upset. People were hollering, you know, do your job, telling him that he needs to be more involved in looking at Trump and the various conflicts of interest. And so I think that we will see some movement on his part, but, you know, we'll have to wait and see.
INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned conflicts of interest and also mentioned that recent town hall meeting that was attended, according to news reports, by something like a thousand people in Chaffetz's district in Utah. We have a little bit of tape of that in which Chaffetz is asked about investigating the president's conflicts of interest, his business conflicts of interest. And he tells the audience something that he says they may not like to hear.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JASON CHAFFETZ: Hold on. You're really not going to like this part. The president, under the law, is exempt from the conflict of interest laws. He's exempt.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Shouting, unintelligible).
INSKEEP: Is that the end of it legally...
CUMMINGS: No, no.
INSKEEP: ...That the conflict of interest law does not apply to the president?
CUMMINGS: He's right about that. But there is something in the Constitution called the Emoluments Clause, and basically what that says is you cannot accept a gift for anything that benefits you from a foreign government unless you get the permission of the Congress. And so just here recently we found out China gave him a trademark, which he had been working on for years, and suddenly they decided to award it to him. And then, as you probably know, around the same time, he moved towards that One China policy. And so this is a clear-cut case of where the Emoluments Clause comes in because that trademark is very valuable.
INSKEEP: Do you have any recourse to force an investigation of this?
CUMMINGS: All we can do is continue to put the information out there. Keep in mind that when you have one party controlling the House, the Senate and the presidency, it becomes very, very difficult. But I believe that we are in a struggle for the soul of our democracy. I think President Trump has given all of us a wake-up call.
INSKEEP: I want to be as fair as we can to your chairman.
CUMMINGS: You can talk to him. You should talk to him.
INSKEEP: Well, we want to talk to him, and we've invited him, and hopefully he'll be on the program soon.
INSKEEP: In the meantime, I want to note he has not said publicly I'm never going to investigate. He said let's wait until he gets into office. Let's see what happens. And he did...
CUMMINGS: Well, we've been waiting. That's the problem.
INSKEEP: He did the other day sign onto a letter criticizing Kellyanne Conway, the presidential adviser, for promoting Trump products.
CUMMINGS: Yeah, he did, but let me be clear. That was a casebook case. He had no choice but to sign on. Here you have a woman who comes on the air, says I'm advertising for (laughter) she says it. I'm going to give a free advertisement. She's got the presidential seal right behind her. I mean, you can't get any better than that.
INSKEEP: Do you believe that he will investigate if problems continue to pile up?
CUMMINGS: I think he will pick and choose those things that he wants to get involved in. I think when you have a clear-cut case like a Miss Conway case, I think he'll get involved. I think there are others that he will not get involved in. But let me tell you something. I'm going to press on with everything I've got because literally I lose sleep over this.
INSKEEP: Congressman Cummings, thanks very much.
CUMMINGS: All right, thank you.
INSKEEP: Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.