THE MORNING PLUM:
The events we’ve seen in the run-up to the inauguration of Donald Trump have only confirmed that he represents a threat to our democracy and governing norms in multiple unprecedented ways. But this isn’t just a story about Donald Trump. It’s also a story about congressional Republicans.
Trump is doing all he can to discredit the apparent CIA conclusion that Russia tried to interfere in our election, which might make a true accounting of this apparently unprecedented assault on our democracy harder. He continues to suggest he will do little to address all the potential conflicts of interests — and possibility of corruption — that are developing around his global business interests on a mind-boggling scale. He continues to claim — after the election — that millions voted illegally, to sow confusion and doubt about the real meaning of the outcome and the integrity of our political process.
Yet there are steps congressional Republicans could take to mitigate the damage of those things, but aren’t:
1. Republicans are already signaling they may hamstring efforts to get to the bottom of Russian interference. The Post’s Karoun Demirjian reports Wednesday that, while Republicans say they want a vigorous probe of what happened, some appear to be taking steps that make this less likely. Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan want to run the probes through their respective bodies’ intelligence committees. But as Demirjian reports, this means more GOP “control” over the course of the probes, and they are resisting calls for more bipartisan, independent forms the investigations could take. What’s more, there is no indication that the findings of more limited probes would ever be made public.
Notably, even some Republicans — such as John McCain — also want more vigorous, independent investigations. Meanwhile, the position of GOP leaders such as Paul Ryan is logically absurd on its face: They claim that Russian interference would constitute an unacceptable attack on our democratic process, even as they appear to be disinclined towards steps that would make a full accounting more likely.
Let’s be clear on what’s really at stake here. There is nothing wrong with Republicans expressing skepticism about the CIA’s charge of Russian interference; it is unproven. Rather, what’s at issue is whether we are going to determine whether this actually happened. What’s more, there is no imaginable scenario under which an accounting of Russian interference would change the election results. Rather, an accounting would make it easier to prevent an outcome (interference in our election) that Republicans themselves say is unacceptable from happening again.
2. Congressional Republicans are not taking steps to blunt Trump’s conflicts of interest. Trump has now confirmed that he will transfer his businesses to his two sons. This does nothing to eliminate the possibility of conflicts of interest and indeed corruption later. But more to the point, it reaffirms the need for more transparency into Trump’s holdings. Now that we know his sons will control them, we know there are going to be conflicts — but, because we don’t have a full sense of the scope and details of those holdings, we won’t have a way of knowing whether these conflicts are taking place in many given situations. And we won’t have a way to gauge the extent to which those interests — his family’s interests — are benefiting from Trump’s policy choices.
There are multiple things that congressional Republicans could do right away to, at a minimum, try to compel the sort of transparency that would improve this situation. They aren’t doing them, and there are no signs this is going to change.
3) Republicans are standing by while Trump erodes confidence in our electoral system. Republicans have lied about vote fraud for years, to justify voter suppression efforts. But Trump has taken this to an unprecedented level. After claiming in advance that the election’s outcome would be illegitimate (if he lost), he has since claimed that he won the popular vote but for the millions who voted illegally. This was obviously designed to inflate impressions of his popular support and continue sowing doubt about the integrity of the voting, perhaps to justify a future wave of voter suppression.
Given the chance to confirm that, no, millions of people did not vote illegally, both Ryan and incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus took a pass.
It’s often argued that previous presidents — including President Obama — helped set the stage for the further erosion of norms we’re likely to see under Trump. There’s some truth to this. Obama could have taken more steps to close the legal door on many expansive tactics that George W. Bush put in place to fight the war on terror, and now we may see Trump expand them further, in horrifying ways. It’s also true that the accretion of executive power and the erosion of checks on it have been part of a bipartisan trend long in the making.
But in the specific areas above, we’re seeing something new and different. We’re looking at the possibility of an unprecedented undermining of the integrity of our democracy; of mind-blowingly extensive corruption; and of a massive erosion of the very possibility of agreement on basic facts about our political outcomes. This goes well beyond anything we’ve seen in recent history, not only in the specifics, but even more so in the aggregate. And, presuming this will continue, the behavior of congressional Republicans in response to it should be seen as an integral part of that story.
* BOB CORKER PLANS RUSSIA PROBE: CNN reports that Senator Bob Corker is now planning a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing into whether Russia tried to swing the election. That’s the third committee planning one. But here’s the rub:
These three reviews stop short of a separate standing committee whose sole task is to investigate the matter…While Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan back the inquiries in the existing committees in Congress, they have resisted calls to establish a new stand-alone panel, something that could grow unwieldy and amount to a political threat to Trump.
The only way a broader and more independent investigation might take place is if there are more revelations that lead to increased public and media pressure for one.
* RUSSIA PUSHES BACK: The Wall Street Journal reports that Russian officials are not only rejecting the charges of interference; they are blaming them on nefarious motives on the part of U.S. intelligence:
Russian officials say publicly and privately that U.S. national-security officials with an interest in Cold War-style confrontation created the furor over the alleged Russian hacking.
All the more reason to get to the bottom of what really happened, with a real congressional investigation. Right?
* TILLERSON HAS NUANCED RECORD ON CLIMATE: The New York Times reports that under Rex Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Exxon got embroiled in a climate denial scandal, but then shifted position:
Under the leadership of Mr. Tillerson…Exxon Mobil shifted its approach to climate policy…The company has acknowledged the science underlying climate change, and has stopped funding some groups that spread false data about global warming. The company also put support behind carbon taxes and last December’s Paris climate agreement.
As noted yesterday, the secretary of state may be in a good position to try to persuade Trump to stay in the Paris deal — if he’s so inclined.
* PELOSI DOESN’T THINK GOP WILL REPEAL ACA: The Hill reports that Nancy Pelosi argues Republicans won’t repeal the ACA, because their plan to keep protections for preexisting conditions while scrapping the mandate is impossible:
Pelosi said…eliminating the mandate while keeping the benefits would shift the balance of insurance pools toward sicker people, causing premium costs to skyrocket….Those extra costs on constituents, Pelosi predicted, will discourage the Republicans’ repeal effort much more than the threat that 20 million people newly insured under Obamacare…might lose coverage. “The one thing … that I think the Republicans are more interested in – not the 20 million or whatever – are costs,” she said.
I’m not nearly as optimistic — it requires believing that Republicans will be motivated by policy realities — but it does underscore what a mess they are likely to make.
* SCIENTISTS MUST SPEAK UP: Reuters reports that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will say in a speech to scientists Wednesday that they must speak out against the Trump administration’s likely flouting of science. From the speech:
“If you see science being ignored or compromised, speak up…think about where to raise your voice and then do it…the American people must be able to trust science…We listen to what science is telling us. And we’ll fight to work without fear of intimidation or retribution.”
Imagine what will happen if and when scientists do speak out and Trump directs his mob of followers in their direction.
* WHY TRUMP PICKED TILLERSON: Trump explained it this way at a rally last night:
“Rex is friendly with many of the leaders in the world who we don’t get along with. And some people don’t like that. They don’t want him to be friendly. [But] that’s why I’m doing the deal with Rex, because I like what this is all about.”
Trump didn’t mention Tillerson’s longtime friendliness with Putin in particular, but that’s who it sounds like he was talking about.