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Opinion How Marjorie Taylor Greene’s MAGA House will boost Trump

Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speaking at a news conference on Nov. 17. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Among Democrats, the conventional reading of the incoming GOP House majority goes like this: Republicans will commence investigations with the care and judiciousness of a toddler throwing spaghetti against the wall. Most won’t stick. But if Republicans turn up something to damage Joe Biden’s presidency, they will have accomplished their mission.

That is no doubt one GOP goal. But there’s a less obvious way that Republicans can wield House probes to political advantage. If they can confuse voters — and seduce the news media — into treating any and all congressional oversight as inevitably politically motivated, they will succeed in a whole different fashion.

This goal — which entails obfuscating the basic distinction between oversight conducted in good faith and in bad — will be within reach for Republicans, due to a peculiar situation. The House select committee examining Donald Trump’s coup attempt will release its report before the end of this year, and might make criminal referrals. Those findings will be debated well into next year, while Trump is running for president.

Which means that for House Republicans, the goal of next year’s investigations will not just be to let a thousand Hunter Biden probes bloom. It will also be to discredit revelations produced by Democrats about Trump.

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This week, we learned that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) won a promise from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), potentially the next speaker, to begin investigations of the Justice Department’s treatment of Jan. 6 defendants. Other Republicans are vowing investigations of the department, too.

Congressional oversight of the department serves a critical public function. We want law enforcement to feel constrained by oversight, which Republicans could theoretically do in good faith, in a valuable and revelatory way.

But Republicans have signaled something different. Greene describes Jan. 6 defendants as “political prisoners.” She and others have demanded the defunding of the FBI simply because it executed a lawfully approved search, which they describe as unchecked jackbooted lawlessness, of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

Their position, then, is essentially that all investigative activity involving Jan. 6 and Trump is inherently illegitimate. So their oversight is likely to metastasize into an industrial-strength bad-faith effort to discredit all such activity, expressly to protect Trump from accountability, and to bury the Jan. 6 committee’s final report in a blizzard of propaganda. Republicans could even try to defund continuing law enforcement investigations and prosecutions.

In the Jan. 6 report, we might also see new revelations about the role that some House Republicans played in Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. That would mean the House GOP could try to use Congress’ investigative machinery to discredit revelations about themselves.

Congressional scholar Sarah Binder notes that such efforts by Republicans will present an unusual, circular situation. Binder told me: “It appears their agenda might be to exonerate the former president, as well as their own roles, in fomenting the Jan. 6 insurrection.”

If and when all this happens, Republicans would naturally argue that they were simply using investigations legitimately, while Democrats used them illegitimately. News organizations would be under pressure to sort out the competing validity of each side’s investigations and the waters could get very murky.

Republicans would, of course, be thrilled if news coverage treated their investigative findings as significant. But Republicans don’t really need the press to validate GOP findings. Fox News and the right-wing media network are sure to treat all such “revelations” as both true and tremendously significant no matter what. Right wing media are already trumpeting what’s coming.

That could escalate next year even as muddied mainstream coverage leads voters in the middle to throw up their hands and decide that both sides equivalently manipulate the investigative process toward “political” ends. That, too, would accomplish a key GOP goal.

There are plenty of examples of GOP-led congressional probes producing “revelations” that were dramatically hyped or largely imaginary. Even when Republicans got something partly right — the FBI’s processes during the Russia investigation were seriously flawed — their effort to discredit that whole investigation badly failed.

By contrast, Democratic congressional probes during the Trump years produced detailed pictures of a complex plot to strong-arm Ukraine into smearing Biden and a wide-ranging scheme to corrupt many government actors to overturn a presidential election.

If GOP probes next year follow their established pattern, the situation will be difficult for the news media to convey.

Government actors can be partisan loyalists while also generally acting in good faith and in the public’s interest. There is a meaningful difference between this and partisan actors engaging in flagrant, bad-faith abuses of the governing process.

But journalists are often uncomfortable registering such asymmetries, as Jay Rosen has long argued. That interferes with their mental picture of the parties as equivalent actors that merely clash over ideology.

Next year, the challenges facing the news media and our political discourse will be formidable. Greene and her allies can boost Trump by attacking the Biden administration with endless investigations. But they can also do so by laying down a dense fog of obfuscation that gets voters to decide all such oversight is inevitably political.

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