Opinion writer

In a new interview with the Associated Press that went live on Tuesday night, President Trump claimed that it won’t be his fault if Republicans lose control of the House. As Trump put it, in a reference to Republican House incumbents and candidates: “No, I think I’m helping people.”

This assertion isn’t just another one of Trump’s the-buck-stops-anywhere-else absurdities. It’s also a dry run for something much worse — that is, his coming effort to escape personal accountability if Democrats do win the House.

That effort will unfold on multiple fronts. New reporting on the timing of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, and on deliberations among Democrats over how to pursue Trump’s tax returns, suggests that a Democratic takeover will set up massive clashes between the Democratic-controlled House and the White House. These battles will turn in part on the meaning of the Democratic victory.

Trump may not have had this at the top of his mind when speaking to the AP, but it’s a signal of what’s to come. The AP asked him whether he will “bear some responsibility” if Republicans cede the House to Democrats. Trump answered:

No, I think I’m helping people. Look, I’m 48 and 1 in the primaries, and actually it’s much higher than that because I endorsed a lot of people that were successful that people don’t even talk about. … I don’t believe anybody’s ever had this kind of an impact. They would say that in the old days that if you got the support of a president or if you’ve got the support of somebody it would be nice to have, but it meant nothing, zero. Like literally zero. Some of the people I’ve endorsed have gone up 40 and 50 points just on the endorsement.

Note that Trump addressed only the impact that his support for candidates has on Republican primary voters — which naturally has been fabulous and unprecedented — as if the voters outside that universe simply don’t exist or will not have a say this fall. But, of course, they will have a say, and polling suggests most of those voters view Trump as a negative factor that’s leading them to want a Democratic takeover for precisely that reason.

Look at the recent Post-ABC News poll. It found that Democrats lead Republicans in the battle for the House by 11 points among registered voters, 53 percent to 42 percent. But more to the point, it found that voters say by 55 percent to 39 percent that they want the next Congress to be controlled by the Democrats to act as a check on Trump rather than by Republicans to advance his agenda. 

Those numbers are particularly pronounced among swing constituencies that appear to be aligning with Democrats this cycle. Independents want a Democratic-controlled Congress as a check on Trump by 58-33; women want this by 60-32; college-educated whites (who sometimes lean Republican) want this by 53-42; and college-educated white women, who are driving the anti-Trump backlash, want this by 55-40.

Then there’s fundraising. The National Journal reports that House Democratic candidates are pulling in extraordinary sums, much of it from small donors. Republicans concede that this has enabled Democrats to advertise in tough districts, expanding the battlefield to “massive proportions.” There’s little question that anger at Trump is a key driver of this, and to be clear, this money-fueled map-broadening is a reason Democrats are more likely to win the House than they otherwise might have been.

So, yes, if Democrats win the House, this will be largely because of Trump. But when Trump says otherwise, that hints at the outlines of big battles to come.

A Democratic House means a real effort at accountability

Bloomberg reports Wednesday that Mueller may present his conclusions just after the elections on whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russian sabotage of our election and whether Trump obstructed justice by trying to constrain the investigation into it. Even if Mueller finds no criminally chargeable offenses, his conclusions, particularly on obstruction, are likely to be politically damning.

But, as Bloomberg notes, we might not find out what Mueller learned. Regulations direct Mueller to present his findings to his boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who then has great discretion to determine how much of those findings to report to Congress (and, by extension, how much the public might learn). Rosenstein oversees the probe because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself.

Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani has explicitly said the White House will move to limit what gets reported to Congress. Trump can try to assert executive privilege. Or he can fire Sessions, as he is expected to do, counting on his replacement to decline to recuse himself and (among other efforts to constrain the probe) severely limit what is reported to Congress. If either of these works, the only thing that might force the release of more of Mueller’s findings is a Democratic-led House. And that would likely mean a battle with the White House.

Then there are Trump’s tax returns. The New York Times reports that if Democrats take the House, they may employ an obscure provision that empowers congressional tax-writing committees to seek the returns of any tax filer from the Treasury Department. Coming after that blockbuster exposé showing that Trump scooped in hundreds of millions of dollars from his father, much of it through dubious tax schemes that raise questions about his more recent conduct, this will be a matter of basic accountability. And so is the question of whether Trump’s foreign business entanglements create conflicts or expose him to blackmail.

But as the Times notes, Democrats expect Trump to refuse to comply, which will all but ensure “a long court fight over the legitimacy of Congress’s oversight of the chief executive”:

Giuliani … said in a brief interview … that he would advise Mr. Trump to fight any such request and saw reason to think he could win. With control of the House, he said, Democrats would merely be conducting a “circus” and would probably have a difficult time proving they had any legitimate legislative or oversight objective.

“It is really for the purpose of political harassment,” Mr. Giuliani said, adding, “It is a heck of a good battle for a president.”

What’s crucial is that in the case of a Mueller report and in the case of Trump’s tax returns, a Democratic-led House may lead to a protracted political war over whether Trump will be held to basic standards of transparency and accountability. We know from polling that if Democrats win the House, it will be in no small part because voters want that to happen. But Republicans have openly argued that they think current levels of oversight are totally adequate — which is to say, that borderline nonexistent oversight on Trump is a good thing — or even that they should be kept in power to prevent real oversight from happening.

When Trump preposterously claims a Democratic victory won’t be his fault, he’s foreshadowing an effort to contest the idea that this outcome demonstrates public desire for oversight and accountability. It’s not hard to picture Trump doing this by arguing that Republicans lost because they didn’t stand by him staunchly enough.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump’s ugly, dishonest CBS interview reveals GOP’s predicament in midterms

Greg Sargent: If Democrats win big in ‘Trump country,’ what will it mean?

Paul Waldman: The midterm elections are drowning in money. How worried should that make us?

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s grip on the Midwest was illusory

Jennifer Rubin: Republicans are shrinking their electoral map