This leaves Democrats, who have almost no power in Washington, in a very bleak position. They are going to have to wage a kind of guerrilla ethics warfare to try to chip away at this wall of opacity wherever possible, since, needless to say, congressional Republicans have no apparent intention of ever exercising serious oversight themselves.
What might this guerrilla ethics warfare look like? One person who is in a good position to shed light on this is Dem Rep. John Sarbanes, who has been appointed by Dem leader Nancy Pelosi to chair the newly-created “Democracy Reform Task Force,” which is an effort to hold Trump accountable for his conflicts wherever possible. In an interview with me, Sarbanes laid out a few ideas:
Shadow hearings. Sarbanes said that Democrats would seek to hold hearings of their own, either on Capitol Hill or in districts where appropriate, that are designed to spotlight situations where Trump conflicts (perhaps ones unearthed by dogged investigative reporting) might be developing. These would bring in ethics watchdogs who are doing their own examinations of legal problems developing around Trump, as well as panels of expert witnesses, to develop the case against Trump and, potentially, other administration members who may have similar problems.
Sarbanes conceded that such hearings, obviously, would not have the sort of investigative power that the majority has. “But if the media is interested in this, which they seem to be, and members are ready to convene around it, we can arrange opportunities for these issues to be shared broadly with the public,” Sarbanes told me. Part of this effort will include trying to arm individual Dem members of Congress to educate voters in their districts about evolving knowledge of Trump’s conflicts, in hopes of increasing public pressure on Republicans to exercise their own more meaningful oversight.
“We want to be innovative about this,” Sarbanes said. “A lot of this is putting information in front of the public.”
Using ordinary congressional hearings to try to force attention to Trump conflicts. Sarbanes noted that Democrats would try to seize on situations where the ordinary workings of Congress gave rise to hearings, to demand transparency from Trump on whether his holdings might create possible conflicts related to the business before Congress. For instance, if a congressional hearing had convened around particular legislation, Sarbanes said, Dems might call on their Republican colleagues — via, say, amendments — to prod Trump for information on holdings that might be impacted by it.
“There will be plenty of instances where the particular jurisdiction of a committee lets us raise an issue about conflicts,” Sarbanes said. “You could have a situation where there’s a policy proposal put forward in committee relating to energy,” which would allow Dems to press the question of “what are Trump’s energy holdings in his businesses, and what’s the potential for [the] proposal to enrich Trump’s business. We’d call for full disclosure and transparency about that.”
Sarbanes allowed that congressional Republicans would frustrate such efforts. “They’ll try to kill them left and right,” Sarbanes said. “But they can’t completely eliminate our voice in a committee hearing.” He added that a lot of this would turn on the ability to drive public attention and, with it, pressure on Republicans, which is what happened when a large public outcry (and, supposedly, a Trump tweet) compelled Republicans to reverse course on gutting an independent ethics oversight office.
“We’re going to try to use every tool that’s available to us,” Sarbanes said. “We’ll constantly reinforce this drumbeat. Republicans are going to be put in a position of needing to decide whether they are going to protect a President who is not protecting the presidency. The problem for them is Trump will keep putting them in a very difficult position on this.”
Richard Painter, who was the chief ethics officer under George W. Bush, has also suggested that individual Senators can try to block specific legislation as leverage to demand that Trump reveal business holdings that might be impacted by that legislation. Dem Rep. Ruben Gallego has argued for a similar pressure tactic designed to get Trump to release his tax returns.
I asked Sarbanes if Democrats should refuse to support any legislation in all situations where Trump refuses to be forthcoming. He declined to say that Dems should commit in advance to that in all instances, but said they should be open to utilizing “leveraging opportunities” wherever possible. “Every tactic to try to force more transparency on the administration is appropriate,” he said.
Once again, the situation is really quite grim. There is cause for serious pessimism about Trump’s conflicts and what they mean for the country. But the very unprecedented nature of the current situation may in turn give rise to innovative tactics designed to change it. There’s no option other than to try.