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Maxine Waters is one of Trump's fiercest critics. She'll get a powerful new platform if Democrats take the House

Maxine Waters is one of Trump's fiercest critics. She'll get a powerful new platform if Democrats take the House
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) speaks at the 2018 California Democrats State Convention in San Diego in February. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Rep. Maxine Waters has tried for months to get a House committee chairman to subpoena documents from Deutsche Bank about Russian money laundering and the finances of President Trump and his family.

If Democrats win the House majority in November, the 14-term Los Angeles lawmaker is almost certain to gain the committee’s gavel. That would give Waters, one of Trump’s fiercest critics, the power to issue those subpoenas along with something more — a high-profile platform to battle the administration.

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She’s indicated she’ll do just that. But Waters, whom Trump has publicly derided as “crazy” and “low IQ,” said her priorities if she becomes chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee would extend beyond the occupant of the Oval Office.

“Our agenda cannot be totally focused on the president or anybody,” Waters said in an interview.

Waters wants to address what she called a national housing crisis, as well as defend the tougher regulations put in place after the financial crisis in 2008 and hold Trump’s financial regulators accountable — particularly the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

She hasn’t been friendly toward large financial institutions, proposing legislation that would allow regulators to break up big banks that “repeatedly harm consumers,” such as Wells Fargo & Co. But industry lobbyists said they don’t fear her chairmanship because she has been helpful on some issues and listens to their concerns, and because enacting legislation would be difficult with Trump in the White House.

Waters also suggested she would look into Trump’s financial dealings, investigations that the panel’s current chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), has shown no interest in pursuing.

“We’re going to review any and all requests we have made to the chairman and we’re going to determine what information has unfolded in the investigation by the special counsel … and if there’s a need to go forward, we will,” Waters said, referring to the probe by Robert Mueller into possible collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign.

Republicans have no doubt that Waters, who has called for Trump’s impeachment, will zero in on the president if she becomes chairwoman of the committee.

Waters “has talked about what she would do and it would be a 24/7 impeachment hearing,” Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) said during a question-and-answer session at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s annual capital markets summit in April.

Privately, White House officials are worried that a Democratic-controlled House would pursue numerous investigations, by Waters and other new committee chairs, stymieing Trump’s agenda.

Ed Mills, a Washington policy analyst for financial services firm Raymond James, said the Financial Services Committee doesn’t have a strong history of conducting investigations and oversight. But he expects that to change under Waters because such an approach “matches her personality.”

“She becomes a bigger player in some of the geopolitical fights and some of the election proxy fights we find ourselves in,” Mills said, noting the committee has oversight of economic sanctions on Russia and Iran.

Waters, 80, already has been a key player in the Democrats’ resistance against Trump. She’s earned the nickname “Auntie Maxine” from younger opponents of the president enamored with her aggressive attacks.

The longest-serving black woman in the House, Waters refused to attend Trump’s inauguration, has talked of impeaching him and sparked sharp criticism — along with death threats — after urging people at a Los Angeles rally in June to confront administration officials in their everyday lives.

Waters’ criticism of Trump has drawn his ire on Twitter and at political rallies, where he often mentions her name to elicit boos from his supporters.

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“Maxine, she's a real beauty, Maxine,” Trump said at an August rally in Lewis Center, Ohio. “A seriously low I.Q. person, seriously.”

Former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who chaired the Financial Services Committee from 2007 to 2011, said Waters has a knack for getting Trump’s attention.

“She gets under his skin,” said Frank, who served for years with Waters. “He is not a man who is comfortable with aggressive, intelligent African American women playing a major part in the affairs of this country.”

Waters arrived in Washington as a fiery advocate for minorities and liberal causes, such as workers’ rights and affordable housing.

The fifth of 13 children raised by a single mother, Waters earned a bachelor’s degree at Cal State L.A. and worked as a teacher and for the early childhood program Head Start before entering politics. She was the chief deputy for a Los Angeles City Council member and in 1977 was elected to the state Assembly, where she rose in power before winning a seat in Congress in 1990.

She became the top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee in 2013 after being cleared by the House Ethics Committee of allegations she improperly helped a bank, in which her husband owned stock, receive bailout money during the financial crisis.

Her committee position puts her in line to be chairwoman if the Democrats take the majority, which many analysts said they have a strong chance of doing.

Waters has continued to be an outspoken critic of big banks but also has become an unlikely champion of the business community on some key issues.

She drew praise in 2015 for playing a pivotal role in reauthorizing the federal Export-Import Bank, which helps U.S. companies sell their products abroad. Conservatives argued the bank provided corporate welfare and successfully shut it down for five months before Waters helped lead a bipartisan effort that reopened it.

Since becoming the panel’s top Democrat, Waters has received more campaign contributions from insurers, bankers and people in other industries affected by policies under the committee’s jurisdiction, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.

“We have a good working relationship,” said Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Even where we have differences, like with a lot of people in Washington, we have a very open dialogue.”

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Before taking the top committee spot, Waters voted with the chamber just 17% of the time in 2012 and 21% over her congressional career. But she’s voted with it more frequently since then, including 58% in 2016, and her lifetime score is now up to 27%, according to the latest available data.

Small bankers said Waters has been helpful on their issues. Even though Waters voted against a bipartisan deregulation bill enacted this year that was focused on small banks, her objections were based on provisions that helped large institutions, said Paul Merski, executive vice president for congressional relations and strategy at the Independent Community Bankers of America.

“I think she’s astute to recognize and has recognized the distinction between trillion-dollar, too-big-to-fail institutions and small community banks,” he said.

Waters said that if the Democrats win the House — and if her colleagues select her as committee chairwoman, as expected — she “will have an open door” to all viewpoints.

“We’re going to make sure even people we disagree with will be able to talk to us and express their concerns,” Waters said.

She also promised to conduct oversight in a respectful manner. Waters was highly critical of Hensarling’s contentious hearings with former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray.

“I am not interested in simply having a fight. I’m interested in trying to get the job done,” she said. “I do not intend to disrespect anybody, but I won’t let anybody run over me.”

Waters’ biggest impact could be from investigations.

Early last year, Waters and four other top committee Democrats asked Hensarling to probe Deutsche Bank after the German institution was fined about $630 million by regulators in New York and Britain in connection with a $10-billion Russian money laundering scheme. Deutsche Bank was a major lender to Trump for years, and Democrats said they were concerned the president might try to interfere with a reported Justice Department investigation of the bank.

Several months later, Waters and the other Democrats asked Hensarling to subpoena Deutsche Bank documents involving an internal review of the money laundering operation and copies of documents related to two internal reviews the bank reportedly conducted of its Russian money laundering scheme and the personal accounts of Trump and his family.

Hensarling has not acted. Waters most likely would, said Dennis Kelleher, president of Better Markets, a group that advocates stricter financial regulation.

“An investigation of Deutsche Bank is not just a ‘get-Trump’ issue, it is a fundamental issue to the stability of the financial system,” he said.

Waters said an investigation is a possibility, and not just because it would target Trump.

“To the degree we can cooperate and not get in the way and not duplicate [the special counsel’s investigation], find a responsible way where we can add to the unveiling of information, we would be open to that,” Waters said.

“We’re not going to rule over the committee just to focus on the president or anybody,” she said. “We’re going to run the committee based on what we think is responsible oversight.”

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