The Plum Line | Opinion
January 2, 2018 at 10:10 AM
THE MORNING PLUM:
As we head into 2018, one big, looming unknown is this: Just how far will congressional Republicans go to prevent a full accounting of Russia’s interference in our election and any possible Trump campaign conspiracy with it?
Certain House Republicans are already working to frustrate the House Intelligence Committee’s ongoing investigation. Do Democrats have any recourse? The answer is yes — but within limits.
In an interview with me, Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut — the No. 2 Democrat on the House intel committee — said that Democrats are seriously exploring the possibility of issuing a minority report that details (among other things) the degree to which Republicans tried to impede a full investigation, should that end up happening. In this scenario, the public would at least have a clear sense of just how far Republicans went to protect President Trump and his top officials from accountability.
“It’s in both the Democrats’ and the Republicans’ interests to … write a report based on a common set of facts,” Himes told me. “It would be a tragedy if the report has a minority section that says, ‘Look, we wanted to talk to these two dozen witnesses and weren’t able to do so.'”
In an important piece, The Post’s Karoun Demirjian reports that Rep. Devin Nunes, a Trump loyalist, may be wielding his influence as chairman of the intel committee to block critical lines of inquiry. Democrats have been alarmed by his tactics, especially the fact that despite his public recusal from the probe, he “never relinquished his sole, unchecked authority” to sign off on — or kill — efforts by Democrats to subpoena top Trump officials for more testimony:
People familiar with the committee’s work estimated that Nunes’s effective veto cost Democrats dozens of requests for interviews and documents that were never sent out, despite repeated entreaties from the minority side.
This includes requests for subpoenas to obtain additional testimony from key figures in the probe who Democrats say were not forthcoming enough in interviews — among them Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. Democrats surmise they might have compelled them to return if not for Nunes’s resistance.
In our interview, Himes confirmed that numerous Democratic requests to bring in witnesses haven’t been acted upon, though he did not confirm Nunes had killed those requests. He also confirmed that Democrats would like to bring in Sessions and Trump Jr. to ask “follow-up questions.”
Democrats want to ask Trump Jr. about a phone call he held with his father about his June 2016 meeting with the Russian lawyer, which he took in the expectation of receiving dirt on Hillary Clinton supplied by the Russian government. Trump Jr. and his dad discussed this meeting just after news of it broke in July 2017. When questioned about this call by committee Democrats, he invoked attorney-client privilege. Democrats want to subpoena Trump Jr. to compel his testimony, which could shed light on what happened at that meeting and how far Trump has gone to prevent the truth about it from coming out.
It appears Nunes may have killed that effort. Meanwhile, Nunes’s investigative zeal is directed elsewhere: Politico recently reported that Nunes is quietly leading a group of House Republicans in an effort to build a case that senior Justice Department and FBI officials improperly handled the explosive “Steele dossier,” which describes links between Trump and Russia.
Trump today called on the Justice Department to target FBI officials for unnamed acts, generally furthering the narrative — fed by Nunes and conservative media — that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe shows Trump is the victim of a corrupt “deep state” plot to reverse the election, and that the perpetrators of that plot should be prosecuted. Yet the New York Times has now reported that the probe came about when Trump adviser George Papadopoulos boasted to an Australian diplomat in May 2016 that he’d learned Russia had dirt on Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. The Australians then passed on this information to Americans, resulting in the original FBI investigation now run by Mueller.
A minority report?
Himes confirmed to me that Democrats want to call Trump Jr. and Sessions back in to ask whether Papadoupoulos communicated to top campaign officials the existence of this Russian dirt on Clinton, and whether that is related to the June 2016 meeting to get said dirt from the Russian government. But it looks unlikely that Republicans will agree, and Himes said that if Republicans do end up frustrating a full inquiry more generally — and keep pushing the narrative of a deep-state coup against Trump — Democrats may issue a minority report detailing what Republicans really did here.
“If the investigation gets wound up too quickly, the minority report would be largely about outstanding questions that were never examined,” Himes told me, though he stressed that he hopes this does not happen.
To be clear, this really might not happen: It’s possible Republicans will allow the inquiry to unfold, and/or that the full truth is not that damning to Trump and his associates. There might not be any coverup. Indeed, Republicans have protested that the Democratic requests for additional testimony are frivolous. But as Susan Hennessey and Benjamin Wittes point out, we can empirically evaluate whether Republicans are — or aren’t — making a good-faith effort to interview all the witnesses necessary to establish the full truth about Russian interference and possible conspiracy with it. So far, there is reason for concern that they aren’t.
And if they do not, a minority report might reveal this in full detail. (Meanwhile, the Mueller probe could reveal some of what Republicans did not want revealed.) Republicans may be able to prevent the full truth from coming out, but they cannot prevent the full truth about their own efforts to frustrate an accounting from seeing the light of day. At which point, the Democrats’ recourse will be political — to further the cause of accountability, they will need to win the House in 2018.
* DEMOCRATS MUST HOLD THE LINE ON ‘DREAMERS’: Trump recently tweeted that there will be no solution for the “dreamers” without money for his silly wall. The Post notes:
Congressional Democrats have expressed openness to finding additional funding for border security but have ruled out funding the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border that Trump promised during his presidential campaign. … Democrats are under intense pressure from Hispanic lawmakers and liberal activists to reject any government funding deal that does not resolve the DACA issue. Already, Democratic senators have helped pass multiple funding deals that did not include DACA protections, including one in December.
My sense is that the most likely outcome is some kind of funding for fencing repair that Trump can falsely claim is a big victory for his wall. Democrats cannot buckle here.
* GOP CHASING ITS OWN TAIL ON OBAMACARE: Politico reports that Republicans are deeply divided over whether to try again to repeal the Affordable Care Act:
GOP leaders on Capitol Hill don’t want a repeat of last year’s Obamacare fumble: They spent precious time on a failed attempt to repeal the health care law every member of the GOP was presumed to hate. But they also don’t want to take repeal off the table, which would provoke conservatives who are still determined to undo Obamacare.
The real question will be whether Republicans agree to act constructively in shoring up the law (crazy idea, I know). They might — if only because they now own the health system’s problems.
* REPUBLICANS MAKE NICE NOISES ABOUT BIPARTISANSHIP: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is suddenly vowing a new effort at bipartisanship, but Carl Hulse explains what’s really driving it. Doug Jones is coming from Alabama:
Mr. McConnell will be presiding over a Senate split 51 to 49 between Republicans and Democrats, a margin providing him scant room to maneuver. It will be almost impossible for congressional Republicans to do anything meaningful without at least modest support from the Democratic side. Another strong motivation exists as well. Congressional Republicans are heading into a dangerous midterm re-election that will serve as a referendum on their management of Washington.
Those factors should mean Democrat leverage, which should lead to a humane solution for the “dreamers” and no Democratic support for an infrastructure plan that isn’t a real public expenditure.
* KEEP AN EYE ON THESE 10 GOVERNOR’S RACES: Politico has a useful overview of the top 10 gubernatorial contests of 2018. As Politico notes, “Republicans hold 33 governorships, to just 16 for Democrats,” but amid a bad political environment, “that could change rapidly next November.”
Note that eight of the top 10 races are in swing or blue states that are currently held by Republicans but could now flip. This gives Democrats a real shot at reversing their losses at the state level, which could have real consequences for the future of Obamacare and House redistricting next decade.
* TRUMP’S NORTH KOREA STRATEGY CARRIES BIG RISKS: Trump says he’s prepared to strike North Korea’s missiles before launch, which is a more aggressive posture than aiming to strike them down after launch. Bloomberg warns:
It’s unclear that the U.S. has the technology or on-the-ground intelligence to effectively carry out a preemptive strike in that kind of crisis situation. And if it fails, the result could be an even bloodier conflict. … U.S. systems … still don’t possess a proven capability of doing that, according to analysts and officials.
Do you trust that Trump will trouble himself about such limitations and downside risks?
* WHAT HAPPENS IF THERE’S A CRISIS? Paul Krugman notes that the economy is continuing along the improving trajectory it followed under Barack Obama, despite the turmoil of the Trump presidency. But in times of crisis, the president really matters:
Can it last? My answer is that it probably can’t, because the return to normalcy is fragile. Sooner or later, something will go wrong, and we’re very poorly placed to respond when it does. … What if something goes wrong in China, or a second Iranian revolution disrupts oil supplies, or it turns out that tech stocks really are in a 1999ish bubble? … How confident would you feel in the team of Donald Trump and Steve Mnuchin?
If the economy did go south, I imagine Trump would not even acknowledge that it was happening.
* AND TRUMP LIES … AND LIES … AND LIES … AND LIES: Here’s the latest tally of Trump’s falsehoods and misleading statements, from Glenn Kessler and the Post fact-checking team:
With just 18 days before President Trump completes his first year as president, he is now on track to exceed 2,000 false or misleading claims, according to our database that analyzes, categorizes and tracks every suspect statement uttered by the president. As of Monday, the total stood at 1,950 claims in 347 days, or an average of 5.6 claims a day.
From his historic unpopularity to his unprecedented lying, Trump really is shattering all kinds of records, just as he says he is, except they aren’t the ones he claims.