If we can take one thing from this sorry episode, it’s this: Democrats must use it as an impetus to pass major reforms to bolster congressional oversight over the executive branch in numerous ways and otherwise make future Trumpian corruption far harder to pull off.
Fortunately, such reforms are available to us. Last year House Democrats crafted the Protect Our Democracy Act, which does these things. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the bill’s author, has vowed to reintroduce it this fall, and a Democratic aide confirms to me that this is on track.
The dire need for this is demonstrated by Trump’s latest moves. His lawyer, Ronald Fischetti, just announced that Trump will continue fighting efforts to secure his returns. This comes after the Treasury Department said last week that it would ultimately release them to Congress, while allowing Trump to make objections.
A ludicrous mess
This situation is utterly ludicrous. When Democrats subpoenaed Trump’s returns in 2019, they acted perfectly within their authority: The law says that when a tax-writing committee requests an individual’s returns, the Treasury Secretary “shall” furnish them.
The House Ways and Means committee articulated a legitimate legislative purpose: Congress was investigating whether the Internal Revenue Service was properly auditing the president’s tax returns.
But Trump’s lawyer is again objecting, insisting there’s “no evidence of any wrongdoing” by Trump. A judge has asked the parties to submit arguments, and this could still drag on for months.
Trump’s argument is ridiculous: The administration was required by law to turn over the returns to the tax-writing committees, and there were numerous legitimate legislative purposes for soliciting them.
Indeed, in addition to the one Democrats offered, Congress arguably needed to determine to what extent Trump was violating the emoluments clause, and whether his overseas finances created conflicts of interest, for basic oversight purposes or to legislate in response.
We still need to know these things. A full reckoning with Trump’s corruption, which could prompt a fuller understanding of what we need to safeguard against a rerun of this disaster, requires it.
The Protect Our Democracy Act
The moral of this story is that Trump stymied this legitimate oversight for years by tying up the subpoena process in court.
The Protect Our Democracy Act would address this. It would require federal courts to expedite lawsuits over congressional subpoenas, and allow congressional committees to opt for a special judicial process to fast-track them.
The bill would beef up congressional subpoena power in other ways designed to prevent abuses Trump engaged in to shut down oversight. It would expand transparency over the pardon power and over presidential manipulation of the Justice Department, addressing still other Trumpian abuses.
Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein notes that Trump took the tried-and-true tactic of using courts to bog down congressional oversight to extraordinary new depths.
“What Trump has done is taken a tactic that’s been used before, and pushed it to the max, making a complete farce of the law and the ability of Congress to investigate,” Ornstein told me. “It’s time to bring a close to that.”
We need to treat this as a moment akin to the post-Watergate era, when revelations of presidential corruption so shocked the country that it forced a series of major reforms. That created much of the system we know today, from the regime of inspectors general to whistleblower protections to governing transparency requirements and much more.
But Trump’s corruption, which has included everything from epic self-dealing to extraordinary manipulation of the machinery of justice to a total deep freeze on congressional oversight, has revealed a whole new series of vulnerabilities.
“Watergate shed light on the enormous gaps in the law and in the practice of politics that enabled rank corruption to seep through,” Ornstein told me. “We got a whole series of reforms to clean up the political process.”
“This is a moment for reform that’s even more powerful than what we saw after Watergate,” Ornstein added.
Of course, if and when the House passes this package, it will likely get blocked by a GOP filibuster. Which should strengthen the case for yet another reform: changing or ending that arcane tactic.
But if that isn’t to be, let’s let Senate Republicans block this suite of anti-corruption reforms and further tie themselves to Trump’s corrupt legacy. That’s an argument Democrats should want to take into the next elections, and it’s one they can win.