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Will Maxine Waters Take Down the Trump Administration or Be Boxed Out by Her Own Party?

The provocative California legislator will have a lot more power in the new House of Representatives. How she chooses to use it will be crucial to her party—and Donald Trump’s.

U.S. Representative Maxine Waters against a royal blue background Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Monday, Axios published a report about the Democratic Party’s newest weapon against the Trump administration: the “subpoena cannon.”

It’s a silly term. It’s meant to describe the Democrats’ congressional oversight agenda once they assume control of the House of Representatives in January. In the majority, House Democrats will have the power to launch all sorts of investigations; the potential subjects include President Donald Trump’s tax returns, his businesses, his mistresses, his cabinet secretaries, and his tumultuous relationship with the Justice Department. The House Republican leadership refused to investigate any of these concerns, and so the Democrats plan to request countless documents and compel dozens of witnesses. The “subpoena cannon” is loaded with concerns that Trump will be inclined to describe, impatiently, inevitably, as amounting to a “witch hunt.”

Several different committees will share responsibility for the various investigations; several different chairs will get a run at Trump and his worst associates. Elijah Cummings will chair the House Oversight Committee, and he has promised to tread where the committee’s Republicans, led by Trey Gowdy, previously refused. Notably, Cummings has said he’s “not going to be handing out subpoenas like somebody’s handing out candy on Halloween,” echoing presumptive House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s more cautious comments about oversight and impeachment efforts. But Cummings isn’t the only incoming House committee chair who will inherit subpoena power. Maxine Waters—the Trump administration’s most controversial critic in Congress—will chair the House Financial Services Committee. Under Waters’s leadership, the committee will likely become a hostile front in the Democratic Party’s war against the Trump administration. Trump might fire special counsel Robert Mueller, and Pelosi might moderate herself—but there’s no curtailing Maxine Waters, the one old-school congressional Democrat whom the left has embraced as a folk hero in opposition to Trump.

Waters and Trump have feuded for more than a year. Waters has called Trump a “liar” who has “advocated violence,” and she’s repeatedly called for his impeachment. In turn, Trump has hectored Waters, calling the Los Angeles representative “an extraordinarily low IQ person” who has called for “harm” against Republicans. Waters is one of the few Democratic leaders who addresses the party base in rebellious, activist terms. In the summer, Waters led calls for the heat-seeking, close-quarters protests that dogged Sarah Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, Stephen Miller, and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who oversaw the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border. “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station,” Waters said, “you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” The remarks were classic Maxine Waters: combative, provocative, but righteous. A year earlier, Waters won acclaim and some measure of tokenization among liberal Trump critics for stubbornly “reclaiming [her] time” in a contentious, viral exchange with Trump’s Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin. In Congress, Waters is the rebellious exception to her own party’s rule. The last person most liberals would have expected to hone the passion and frustrations of the modern Democratic base was a senior member of Congress.

But other congressional Democrats have distanced themselves from Waters. Pelosi called her colleague’s comments encouraging protests “unacceptable.” Meanwhile, Republicans have eagerly characterized Waters as her party’s leading extremist. After the second tumultuous summer of Trump’s presidency, Waters succeeded Pelosi in the conservative imagination. Breitbart obsesses over every quote and interview Waters gives. Tucker Carlson bills the legislator as elected antifa. “The activist left is telling us that people who disagree with them no longer have freedom of movement or association. They can’t go to the movies or go to restaurants. If they dare leave their homes, they will be surrounded by mobs and threatened. It’s happening,” Carlson warned his Fox News viewership. He cited Waters’s calls for protests against Trump administration officials as “the language of total war.”

For several months now, Waters has defied all calls for apology and moderation. The weekend before Election Day, Waters renewed her calls for protest against the Trump administration. For now, the president has so far offered only mild comments about the Democratic agenda in the 116th Congress, though he has explicitly warned House Democrats against harassing him with investigations. “Almost from the time I announced I was going to run, they’ve been giving us this investigation fatigue,” Trump told reporters gathered at the White House the day after the midterm elections. Waters defied Trump’s warning almost immediately. She’s promised to investigate his tightly guarded finances. “Deutsche Bank is key to understanding the relationship between the president and members of the president’s family and money laundering and all of that,” Waters told The Hill. The cannon is loaded. Maxine Waters will fire when ready.