The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Congress is obligated to follow the facts

Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) questions then-acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker as he appears before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill last month. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Democrats commenced a long-overdue, broad inquiry into President Trump’s possible corruption, abuse of power and obstruction of justice. Much as the soundbite-obsessed media want to ask over and over again whether this means impeachment, “this” is about finding and displaying to the American people all the facts. The notion that Congress should not investigate all of Trump’s wrongdoing for fear of appearing to overreach is daft; the diversity and seriousness of Trump’s wrongdoing shouldn’t earn him a pass on some subset of them. Which potential crimes and impeachable offenses should Congress not investigate?

The House Judiciary Committee’s three categories of inquiry provide a useful framework for understanding the types of wrongdoing it will examine.

For example, in the abuse of power department, the House Judiciary Committee should look to explore whether Trump:

  • Used the instruments of government power to impose economic harm on opponents (e.g., seeking to raise postal rates on Amazon, whose founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Post);
  • Directed the Justice Department to investigate political enemies and/or go easy on friends (e.g., Michael Flynn);
  • Overrode the recommendations of national security professionals to give relatives who were security risks access to confidential information; and
  • Used his office to smear both private citizens and DOJ officials by approving release of a memo misleading the public about the Carter Page warrant; to help reveal the identity of a confidential source; and to give Russia highly classified material.

The key facts here will be: What did the president do, and why did he do it? When the issue of former FBI director James Comey’s firing came up, Trump apologists claimed whatever was within his Article II powers couldn’t be the basis of a criminal charge (e.g., obstruction). Numerous legal experts and Attorney General William P. Barr have made the compelling case that’s not true. However, even Trump defenders conceded these actions could be an abuse of his powers. That’s what the House Judiciary Committee aims to determine: Did Trump take otherwise lawful actions for improper purposes (e.g., punish enemies, enrich himself, favor family members)?

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Likewise, corruption is largely a factual question. Did he use his office to enrich himself or his family by making government decisions to benefit his bottom line (e.g., not to sell the FBI building across the street from his hotel, induce favor-seekers to stay at his properties, receive foreign emoluments). While bribery requires a quid pro quo, the more general understanding of corruption is self-enrichment by misuse of government power. Corruption also extends, of course, to actual financial crimes such as bank fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, etc. These may be the subject of the Southern District of New York’s investigation, but House judiciary staff argue that Congress has a separate obligation to investigate such matters. (They also vow not to trip up prosecutors who may be looking into such matters.) Congress has a constitutional role in deciding whether to approve foreign emoluments; the House will explore this issue as well.

Lying is a big component of corruption. Did Trump promise to put his properties in a trust and not do so? Did he mislead voters about efforts to pursue a Moscow Tower deal during the election? Did he lie about security clearances in order to afford his son-in-law access to classified information for private purposes? Did he lie about foreign interests in countries about which he made foreign policy decisions? Did he lie about being under audit to disguise financial chicanery? These are factual matters which can be substantiated by documentary evidence, eyewitness accounts and Trump’s own statements.

And with regard to obstruction, we have yet to determine if, for example, he or others at his direction changed witnesses’ testimony, leaned on them to lie and offered them pardons to protect him. Obstruction would include interfering with a congressional investigation or ones conducted by the special counsel and the Southern District of New York.

These are all factual questions. The committee needs to determine what Trump did and didn’t do, or if it is impossible to determine. The implications of its findings will be decided after that.

Political watchers might think we “know” what Trump has done, but a news report based on witnesses whose credibility has yet to be determined is not the same as laying out all the available evidence in front of the American people through sworn testimony and documentary evidence.

Republicans who oppose the investigation and/or seek to disrupt it have in essence said the public doesn’t have the right to find out if the president is a crook. Under Republican control, the House chairmen simply repeated over and over that there is no evidence of wrongdoing -- and then refused to look. They saw their obligation was to protect Trump, and did it rather well. Now Congress will look at the facts, and let the chips fall where they may.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: ‘Impeachable’ and ‘illegal’ aren’t interchangeable

Greg Sargent: Democrats are set to take a big step toward impeaching Trump

James Comey: Republicans are wrong. Transparency is possible in the Mueller investigation.

David Ignatius: Michael Cohen’s testimony reminds us that Trump’s investigations are far from over