An odd disconnect has opened up in the Democratic approach to President Trump. On the one hand, Democrats rhetorically treat his presidency as a rolling national emergency, as an existential threat to our democracy.
Yet on the other hand, in several crucial ways, Democrats are badly muddling that message, by refraining from doing what might be described as the congressional oversight equivalent of breaking the emergency glass.
Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking Democrat in the House leadership, is now in the news because he claimed in a new interview that Trump and his family “are the greatest threats to democracy of my lifetime.”
“Adolf Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany,” Clyburn told NBC News, drawing an implicit comparison to Trump by musing on Hitler’s success in “discrediting institutions," and warning that if we are too complacent about Trump’s success in doing the same, “we are asking for dire consequences."
Meanwhile, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said at a town hall meeting that Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on the border “is making the president a dictator.”
If all this is so, then maybe it’s time to step up efforts to get Trump’s tax returns.
Let’s get going on this already
On March 1, Democrats leaked word that their demand for Trump’s personal tax returns was coming “as early as the next few weeks,” as NBC News put it. It’s been three weeks since then, and that demand has not yet materialized.
Democrats will invoke an old legal provision that empowers tax-writing committees to request any individual’s tax returns from the Treasury Department. Thus, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee are gearing up to request the returns of Individual-1. The Treasury Department has said it will block this request, which will trigger a legal battle.
Democratic insiders believe their case will be stronger if multiple House committees each offer a legislative and/or oversight rationale for needing the returns — say, a need to see whether his financial dealings abroad signal conflicts of interest, or whether his businesses are violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause. Rep. Richard Neal (Mass.), the Ways and Means Committee chair, has asked multiple committees to furnish such a rationale.
The idea that this approach would place the House on more solid institutional footing is reasonable. But there has been no serious effort to explain why this needs to take as long as it has.
“We’re now in spring and time is wasting”
What’s more, Democrats appear to be gravitating toward seeking only Trump’s personal returns, and not his business returns, given the latter’s complexity. But as tax expert Steven Rosenthal argues, the uniqueness of Trump’s case — the sprawl of his business empire; his refusal to divest; and the entanglement of those things with Trump’s epic self-dealing — means Democrats cannot seriously exercise oversight responsibilities without getting access to both.
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a member of Ways and Means, is turning up the heat on his colleagues. In a statement emailed to me, Pascrell said accessing Trump’s business and personal returns is essential to determining the “extent of any crimes” he may have committed, and “how far his conflicts go."
Pascrell adds that Neal has “promised me this request will happen, and I believe him. That being said, we’re now in spring and time is wasting."
Indeed, more than three weeks have passed since former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified that Trump’s tax returns — including his business ones — likely contain evidence of multiple crimes. The legal case for getting Trump’s returns is already strong. Cohen’s testimony placed an exclamation mark on the political and institutional case for getting them.
Trump’s refusal to release his returns is like the Original Sin of the very sort of institutional degradation that Democrats regularly lament. Getting access to them would illuminate the scale of those degradations, which are ongoing. Yet this whole process has been saturated with an aura of tentativeness that is hard to fathom.
It is true that House Democrats voted to terminate Trump’s national emergency, and have launched major investigations into just about every facet of Trumpian corruption. This functionally represents a big step toward impeachment, laying the groundwork for this possibility later (though whether they’ll do it remains to be seen), and thus a big step toward accountability.
But we’re now learning that White House lawyers will refuse cooperation with Democratic document requests on every front possible. This was expected, but it confirms the big point here: The White House will resort to extraordinary means to keep Trump beyond the reach of accountability, underscoring the need for Democrats to use all the tools they have at their disposal — such as seeking the returns — aggressively and without delay.
Better language on impeachment and Mueller needed
This also only makes it more inexplicable when Democrats treat the topic of impeachment in a counterproductive way. Multiple Democratic leaders recently endorsed the idea that impeachment can commence only if startling enough information emerges to raise widespread bipartisan alarm.
As Brian Beutler says, this incentivizes GOP lawmakers not to break with Trump, no matter how damning the revelations prove. And it fails to reckon with another unique aspect of this moment — the massive disinformation apparatus Trump has marshaled, which will paint any and all efforts at accountability as illegitimate in the minds of GOP voters, likely rendering bipartisan alarm a pipe dream. Democrats are, in effect, giving this propaganda apparatus veto power over even the act of beginning impeachment hearings — instead of facing what this disinformation saturation really means.
Meanwhile, the special counsel’s report is coming, and Trump’s allies are plastering the airwaves with the argument that no additional charges will constitute vindication. That’s absurd — immense wrongdoing has already been established, and multiple probes will continue. But are Democrats ready for this spin war?
A demobilization of the grassroots?
Progressive activists have told Vox’s Matthew Yglesias that they fear all this sends a message that House Democrats believe everything is under control — threat averted! — and that this could “demobilize” the grass roots. It does seem to send the message that our epic civic disaster can be resolved through conventional politics.
But the economic models suggest Trump very well could get reelected, which itself suggests that conventional politics may not be sufficient. And the disconnect between this and the national emergency rhetoric from leading Democrats — not to mention the actions of Trump himself — puts the Democratic reading of our current moment at risk of getting needlessly confused and muddled, at exactly the wrong time.