While much of the base wants lawmakers to take on [President] Trump . . . more moderate members fear that oversight investigations will be a distraction or cause political blowback for the party. They want to see a policy focus instead and don’t want to be pulled too far to the left.
It is not clear to me how widespread this worry is. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume we are likely to see many more such concern-troll-like warnings.
So here is our contribution to this debate: Shut up and stop wringing your hands, “cautious Democrats.” This whole fear appears to be based on the notion that Democrats face some sort of zero-sum choice between investigating Trump on the one hand, and focusing investigative authority on policy and governing on the other.
But this distinction is largely an invention. It’s a false choice. In multiple important ways, examining policy and governing is investigating Trump. Such oversight would be brought to bear on the administration’s biggest governing fiascoes and abuses — which are themselves conspicuous outgrowths of Trump’s own bad-faith rationales for his most egregious policy failures and his own abuses of power for corrupt ends. Oversight of the former is tantamount to shining a light on the latter.
Take Trump’s tax returns. It is true that any effort by Democrats to get them could yield fodder that damages the president politically. But such an effort would also be about determining whether there is additional self-dealing or financial conflicts of interest on Trump’s part that we don’t yet know about, and those things would implicate administration policy choices. Thus, shaking loose Trump’s tax returns would constitute shining a light on governing abuses or potential corruption.
Or take the investigation being conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have vowed to investigate topics such as Russian money laundering and the possible overlap with Trump’s finances. Yes, these things could potentially harm Trump politically. But as Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif), the incoming committee chairman, has noted, this would be all about determining whether Russia is in a position to “influence U.S. policy in a way that is against our national interest.” Here again, investigating Trump is investigating administration policy and what’s influencing it.
More broadly, in redirecting the committee towards Trump and questions involving Russia, Democrats will be ending the Republicans’ use of the committee to run a harassment campaign directed at the Mueller inquiry. This is, itself, an act of restoring a legitimate governing process to replace a thoroughly corrupt one.
Then there are the ways House Democrats might pass legislation in a manner that fills the vacuum left by the GOP’s abdication of its oversight role. In a memo to House Democrats, the liberal Center for American Progress recommended that they do the following in the majority:
We strongly urge Congress to pass a law requiring all candidates for federal office, beginning in 2020, to disclose their tax returns. It is similarly critical that Congress pass legislation requiring independent judicial review of any firing of a special counsel appointed by the [Justice Department], thereby preserving their independence from an elected leader seeking to improperly stifle an inquiry into their own (or their friend’s or family’s) affairs.
These measures would, of course, be directed at Trump. But (while they would not become law) they are also about setting forth a commitment to transparency and legitimate process when it comes to — say it with me — governing.
Or take immigration. Democrats might investigate the processes behind the thinly-veiled Muslim ban, the dramatic cuts to refugee levels or the family-separations policy (particularly if Trump restarts the last in some form). In all these cases, both governing abuses and Trump’s particular pathologies would be scrutinized. Examining their implementation would also shine a light on the deep saturation of bad faith at their core, which has included ignoring Homeland Security studies blowing up the travel ban’s rationale, deep-sixing administration data showing refugees are a net economic positive, and shrugging at warnings that separations could traumatize children — all to carry out Trump’s determination to implement a white-nationalist agenda.
Will there be cases in which Democrats are at odds over what to investigate and how? Of course. There are already disagreements among Democrats on the Financial Services Committee over how vigorously to police Wall Street, and over whether to prioritize Trump’s finances over passing policy. But these types of disagreements are to be expected, given how eager Democrats are to get back into the majority and flex their authority, and given the backlog created by Republican abdication. Sorting these arguments out is the stuff of governing.
Are there scenarios in which Democrats might pull a Benghazi and overreach in dramatic fashion, embarrassing themselves and activating voter sympathy for Trump? Sure, but it seems unlikely. On impeachment, as Brian Beutler points out, if anything, House Democrats have erred on the side of foreclosing this option for themselves regardless of what vigorous oversight (or the Mueller investigation) ends up revealing. And Trump is not Bill Clinton. Majorities already believe the Mueller investigation is examining legitimate matters, and believe that Trump has tried to interfere with the inquiry and has lied about it. Americans just voted in Democrats to act as the very check that Trump has resisted at all costs.
If Democrats focus their oversight authority on serious abuses of power, governing fiascoes and corruption — and stick to where the facts lead — they’ll be, yes, investigating Trump, while also standing for a restoration of transparency, accountability, legitimate governance and the rule of law. There’s no need to allow this to get hyped into a false choice or a cause for hand-wringing, Democrats.