On a Tuesday afternoon in late September, House Democrats convened behind closed doors in the U.S. Capitol to map out their plans for an impeachment inquiry against President Trump.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) directed the chairmen of six powerful committees to take the reins of the investigation. Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) is one of them.
But Cummings wasn’t in the Capitol that day.
He was recovering from a medical procedure prior to the impeachment announcement, according to a statement issued by his office. His staff hasn’t said publicly what type of procedure it was.
Cummings, 68, has had multiple health problems in recent years. He had a difficult recovery after a heart valve replacement in 2017, and regularly uses a walker and a wheelchair to move around the Capitol.
Cummings’ last vote on the House floor was on Sept. 11, according to roll call tallies kept by the chamber. He missed more than two dozen roll call votes before the House went on a two-week recess on Sept. 27.
When he missed a Sept. 19 hearing on statehood for Washington, D.C., he said in a statement, “I was very disappointed to miss today’s important hearing. Unfortunately, I’ve had to have a medical procedure, and my doctors expect me to be back in the office in a week or so.”
Cummings is in fact expected to be back on Capitol Hill next week, according to a senior Democratic committee aide.
But his absence hasn’t stopped him from participating in impeachment proceedings. He has been in regular contact with Pelosi and other lawmakers, and his friends and colleagues expect him to remain a central player in the political drama playing out on Capitol Hill.
“The chairman has obviously had more than his fair share of medical struggles, but he is every bit as engaged a leader of our committee as he ever was,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), who serves with Cummings on the House oversight panel, told Maryland Matters in an interview this week.
Last week, Cummings issued a subpoena to the White House for documents pertaining to the impeachment inquiry. Cummings – joined by House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) – are requesting documents as part of their investigation into allegations that Trump pressured Ukraine’s president to interfere in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
The White House has announced it doesn’t plan to cooperate with the House impeachment inquiry. Cummings told the White House last week that his committee, as the principal oversight panel in the House, has the authority to investigate “any matter” at “any time,” regardless of whether an impeachment inquiry were under way.
“We deeply regret that President Trump has put us – and the nation – in this position, but his actions have left us with no choice but to issue this subpoena,” the chairman wrote.
Cummings was also consulted on another subpoena issued Thursday by the Intelligence Committee to business associates of Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in relation to the impeachment inquiry. The Oversight Committee Chairman signed off on yet another subpoena Thursday seeking documents from Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Cummings and the leaders of the other House committees involved in the impeachment probe are expected to assemble evidence that they funnel to the House Judiciary Committee, which is expected to write and vote on articles of impeachment.
The oversight chairman has been active on social media lately, too, where he regularly attacks Trump and his administration.
“The President is acting as if he is above the law,” Cummings wrote Wednesday on Twitter. “What is else is he hiding from the American people?”
As the chief watchdog in the House, Cummings was always expected to be at the center of the Democratic House majority’s fight with Trump. But the president escalated the feud earlier this year when he assailed Cummings on Twitter, calling his district a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
Cummings’ house was burglarized shortly after Trump’s comments on social media, and Trump reacted with apparent sarcasm. “Really bad news! The Baltimore house of Elijah Cummings was robbed. Too bad!” he wrote on Twitter.
Former Maryland Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest said he doesn’t expect Cummings to make the impeachment issue personal, despite Trump’s attacks against him.
Cummings “knows to set the right tone and example,” Gilchrest said. “And he also knows that what America needs is calmness, knowledge and decency, and he projects that.”
Gilchrest, who served with Cummings for a dozen years, said he doesn’t expect health problems to slow Cummings down as the impeachment inquiry gains steam.
“I think he’s so full of integrity that he’s doing more than most people would do,” he said. “America is lucky to have Elijah Cummings, that’s for sure.”