The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Trump and Kevin McCarthy should fear a Warnock victory

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). (David Becker/For The Washington Post)

If Sen. Raphael G. Warnock wins the runoff election in Georgia, the biggest losers might prove to be not just Herschel Walker and Mitch McConnell, but also Donald Trump and Kevin McCarthy.

Trump and House Minority Leader McCarthy appear to be gearing up for a clever double act. With Trump announcing his run for president, McCarthy is signaling that if he becomes speaker, the GOP-controlled House will launch endless hearings designed to damage President Biden and discredit past and continuing revelations about Trump.

But Democrats have recourse — especially if Warnock is reelected on Dec. 6.

In an evenly divided Senate, subpoenas are issued on a bipartisan basis. But having 51 Democratic senators in the next Congress would give Democrats on key committees unilateral control over investigations.

If Democrats used that power wisely but aggressively, they could demonstrate to the country what congressional oversight looks like when it’s genuinely conducted in the public interest. That alone would reflect terribly on McCarthy’s House, which is likely to devolve into a 24/7 spectacle akin to Fox News meets “The Krusty the Clown Show.”

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

“If we’re investigating legitimate issues while they’re fixated on Hunter Biden’s laptop, we’ll be doing our job,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told me. “And we’ll be winning the battle of public opinion.”

Democratic-controlled Senate committees would presumably focus in part on Trump’s efforts to profit off the presidency, because that has again become a major public issue. The New York Times reports that Trump’s company has signed a new deal licensing the Trump name to a Saudi-based real estate company building a major project on land owned by the Oman government. With Trump again running, this suggests the Saudis and the Oman government might be openly trying to buy the good will of a potential future president.

“Now that we know that it already happened, it’s ongoing and he fully intends to monetize another presidency, that has to be a central theme,” Schatz said. It would serve the public, he said, for the Senate to establish a record of “all the foreign money” Trump took as president.

Another area where a Warnock victory could matter: finishing the work of the House select committee investigating the insurrection. Congressional expert Norman Eisen points out that Democratic-controlled Senate committees could continue seeking testimony from Trump and his vice president, Mike Pence, or shed further light on election deniers who seek to corrupt elections at the local level.

In addition to being good for the country, continuing the Jan. 6 investigation could counter the coming House GOP efforts, which are likely to be focused on casting doubt on all we have learned about Trump’s coup attempt and its many enablers. “It’s very important to counterbalance illegitimate investigations that the House is signaling by doing legitimate ones,” Eisen told me.

Beyond Trump, another possibility is to examine revelations about a Supreme Court leak that allegedly disclosed to conservatives a pending ruling on contraception. As Punchbowl News’s John Bresnahan notes, a Democratic-controlled Judiciary Committee under Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) would be freer to pursue this.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of that committee, said a hearing on Supreme Court leaks is “very well warranted” to shed light on the need for more “ethics enforcement” over the high court. Blumenthal also noted that a Warnock victory ensures “more judges confirmed more quickly.”

A 51-seat Democratic Senate could also focus attention in some areas that make the Biden administration squirm. This might include a look at migrant detention practices by the Biden administration, or whether it acted in good faith in using the Title 42 health rule to restrict asylum-seeking.

Or a Democratic Senate might undertake a deeper look at various FBI intelligence failures involving Jan. 6, as Asha Rangappa has documented. That’s something Republicans might be reluctant to examine if the investigation were to uncover evidence of insurrectionist sympathies inside law enforcement.

All this would raise difficult complications inside the Senate Democratic caucus. Moderates might be reluctant to ramp up party-line investigations for fear of being attacked as partisan. And it’s true that such efforts would be seized on by Republicans to feed the circus-like, tit-for-tat atmosphere they plainly hope to create.

But like it or not, politics is an information war. Aggressive, legitimately predicated investigations could help command public attention and crowd out the noise Republicans hope to create with their investigative circus.

“A balance has to be struck,” Schatz told me. “We have to be tough. We have to be loud. We have to be pugilistic. But we don’t have to be ridiculous and unfounded and corrupt. That’s what they are.”

Ultimately, Schatz said, “we have an obligation to fully use our subpoena power and our investigative authority.”

If Warnock wins, Senate Democrats should not refrain from maximally employing that authority in service of good-faith investigations in the public interest. It would be unbearably perverse if they hold back, even as House Republicans go full-throttle with bad-faith investigations that lack any such rationale.