BY ALEX SEITZ-WALD and BENJY SARLIN, NBC News
(NBC News) - If Donald Trump leaves the GOP divided after the election, a Hillary Clinton victory could bring the party back together, as Republicans and Democrats prepare for a flood of potential congressional investigations.
The daily drip of hacked emails from Wikileaks, the exposure of Clinton's email server and pay-for-play allegations about the Clinton Foundation may not cost her a victory in the current race, which has largely become a referendum on Trump's fitness for office. But the allegations won't magically disappear after Nov. 8 either, and Republicans are determined to cut short any potential honeymoon period.
In the last few weeks alone, dozens of House Republicans have demanded that a special prosecutor investigate the Clinton Foundation for possible conflicts of interest. Sen. Ted Cruz has called for a "serious criminal investigation" into a Democratic operative featured in a sting video by conservative activist James O'Keefe. And Speaker Paul Ryan promised "aggressive oversight work in the House" of an alleged "quid pro quo" deal between the FBI and the State Department over reclassifying an email on Clinton's private server.
Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who would likely serve as the chief antagonist of a second Clinton White House as chair the House Oversight Committee, told Fox News last week the "quid pro quo" claim alone was worth at least "four new hearings," claiming it was a "flashing red light of potential criminality."
Both the FBI and State Department say no quid pro quo took place, and that the incident was a misunderstanding. But the episode is one of many that conservative commentators, watchdog groups and lawmakers will almost certainly return to well after election day.
"You're going to still have a clamor for a serious criminal investigation of Mrs. Clinton's conduct with respect to her emails and the [Clinton] Foundation," Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, which has spearheaded legal efforts against Bill and Hillary Clinton for years, told NBC News. "There's been no systematic investigation of various issues."
After Trump spent months telling the party's base the election is rigged, Republicans in oversight roles will face tremendous pressure to expose Clinton's perceived corruption.
"I know this generation of Republican leaders is loathe to exercise these tools, but impeachment is something that's relevant," said Fitton, who criticizes Republican lawmakers for failing to pre-emptively impeach Clinton. "They see [the oversight process] as an opportunity in some measure to keep their opponents off-kilter, but they don't want to do the substantive and principled work to truly hold corrupt politicians, or the administration, or anyone accountable."
Politically, there are also strong incentives for Republicans to dig into Clinton, both to slow Democrats' agenda and to keep warring factions of the GOP together while they work through tougher disagreements on policy, tone and tactics.
"I do think being a check on Clinton is an important objective to unite the party and get control of Congress back in 2018," said Republican strategist Tim Miller, a leading critic of Trump who also previously helped direct opposition research against the Democratic nominee.
GOP oversight efforts ramped up during the campaign as Trump's poll numbers fell. Since July alone, when FBI Director James Comey announced he had recommended against prosecuting Clinton for having classified material on her email server, Republicans have issued 17 subpoenas and 54 letters of inquiry probing Clinton, according to House Democrats.
Ian Prior, of the conservative super PAC American Crossroads, said scandal has followed Clinton "like a shadow" throughout her career. "If Hillary is elected president, her willingness to bend the rules to satisfy her own ambitions make it a virtual certainty that the abuse of power and endless drama that are part of the Clinton baggage will continue," he said.
The weaponization of the oversight process has become a predictable part of the political landscape, and has thus lost some of its punch. But constant probes, even when they amount to little, can have a corrosive effect on any White House, as Clinton herself knows all too well.
"The purpose of the investigations was to discredit the president and the administration and slow down its momentum. It didn't matter what the investigations were about; it only mattered that there were investigations," Clinton wrote in her memoir "Living History," about her time as first lady. "[O]ur lives and the work of the President were disrupted over and over again."
Even President Obama, who faced fewer major scandals than either Clinton, has been bogged down at time by Congressional investigations.
More dangerous still, probes into any issue can stumble across explosive finds. The Whitewater investigation led to the exposure of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, while the House Oversight Committee on Benghazi helped uncover Clinton's email server.
Clinton's campaign is already girding for a potential fight with Chaffetz and his colleagues, drawing battle lines that will likely harden very quickly if Clinton takes office.
"This is exactly what Americans hate about Washington. Before the election has even taken place, Jason Chaffetz is already planning to further abuse his office and waste more taxpayer dollars on political witch hunts against the potential President-elect," said Clinton campaign spokesperson Brian Fallon. "Hillary Clinton is running against this exact type of partisan gridlock. And if she wins, she intends to reach out to try to get things done, even if Congressman Chaffetz intends to ignore the public's clear desire for the two parties to work together."
Clinton's first line of defense may be Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on both the Oversight Committee and Benghazi Committee, who has been running interference since 2011 against what he sees as the GOP majority's trumped-up attacks.
"For the past six years, they have squandered millions and millions of taxpayer dollars on partisan attacks that do absolutely nothing to improve the lives of our constituents, and now they already seem to be plotting to continue this pattern if Secretary Clinton wins the election," said Cummings. "Rather than continuing this partisan Republican approach of distraction and destruction, we should work together in a bi-partisan way to seek constructive reforms to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of federal programs."
David Brock, a former right-wing Clinton antagonist-cum-defender, will continue to play a major role defending Clinton from outside the government, according to someone familiar with the groups.
While the benefits of targeting Clinton are significant, so are the risks.
GOP investigators generated political backlash in the 1990s but failed to knock out President Clinton, who left office with solid approval ratings even after surviving an impeachment process. And Hillary Clinton's 11-hour testimony before the Benghazi Committee was seen as a major political win for her.
"The smart course for them is to keep it on issues; the dumb course is to scandal-monger," said Paul Begala, a former Bill Clinton adviser who now works with the pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Priorities USA. "These days you rarely lose money betting on Republicans being stupid."