Donald Trump has long excelled at the art of blithely revealing his corrupt designs in public, and at a rally in September, he openly signaled that he fully expected Republicans elected to Congress to thwart the ongoing criminal investigations into, well, himself.
The House is scheduled to vote Monday on a package of rules that hard-right Republicans extracted from McCarthy in exchange for dropping their opposition to his bid to be speaker, which finally succeeded early Saturday after 15 tortured votes.
The rules create a select committee on the “weaponization of the federal government,” to be chaired by Trumpist Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). The committee would have the authority to examine the executive branch’s collection of information on U.S. citizens, including during “ongoing criminal investigations.”
As speaker, McCarthy has already declared that the GOP-controlled House will target the “weaponization of the FBI.” When the FBI executed a lawful search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, Republicans treated it as a historic abuse of power, so there’s little doubt the committee will target criminal investigations into Trump.
This will likely entail subpoenas designed to “investigate” the process by which law enforcement sought the Mar-a-Lago search warrant. There will also undoubtedly be subpoenas directed at ongoing criminal investigations into Trump’s efforts to overturn his election loss, and attempts to haul FBI officials before Congress.
The circuslike intimations of this shouldn’t obscure the genuinely important and complicated issues at play here. For decades, through Republican and Democratic administrations alike, the Justice Department has resisted congressional oversight of ongoing criminal investigations.
There are reasons for this. Revealing sensitive information could mean disclosures that are unfair to defendants or tip off targets and others about the direction of investigations, compromising them.
So the GOP push to pry open these investigations could get tied up in litigation, and courts may not let it get far. But that might not matter: Provoking the department into strenuously resisting oversight might be the whole point.
That resistance could serve as grist for Republicans and their allies in the right-wing media to scream “coverup” and paint investigations as corrupt. That could even be used to manufacture a fake rationale for impeaching Attorney General Merrick Garland, and for attempts to use an obscure House rule to defund investigations of Trump.
“This is all deliberately planned theater,” former FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was aggressively targeted by congressional Republicans during the investigation into Russian electoral interference, told me. Republicans will “play that out for a few months,” Strzok suggests, to dramatize the question that he expects to be screamed 1,000 times on Fox News: “What do they have to hide?”
Republicans will also likely apply this technique to prosecutions of defendants who attacked the Capitol, whose alleged mistreatment is already a far-right cause. While that’s a valid topic of oversight, some Republicans describe them as “political prisoners.” You can anticipate GOP propaganda that will cast law enforcement targeting of Jan. 6, 2021, rioters as inherently illegitimate.
Democrats are also girding for coordination between congressional Republicans and Trump’s lawyers. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the former chair of the Intelligence Committee, notes that during previous investigations into Trump — over Russian interference and the strong-arming of Ukraine — Republicans functioned as “surrogates for the Trump defense team.”
“Whatever we uncovered during those investigations would immediately make its way to Trump and his criminal lawyers,” Schiff told me. “I fear we’re going to see more of the same.”
The new GOP select committee will also be authorized to receive information available to the Intelligence Committee. This, too, could prove insidiously destructive.
Here’s how: While the noise in our politics obscures this, much real government work gets done quietly behind the scenes, such as information sharing between intelligence agencies and lawmakers in both parties conducted voluntarily and in good faith. That could be imperiled by bad GOP actors leaking information to fuel deep state conspiracy theories.
“It’s going to breed distrust between the intelligence community and the Congress,” Schiff told me.
Congressional oversight of law enforcement and intelligence agencies is an essential component of accountable government and the rule of law. Perhaps Republicans will undertake this oversight with nothing but pure, unsullied concern for the public interest.
But the oversight process can also be abused. And Republicans have an actual track record of this: Again and again and again, they’ve wielded that process in bad faith to create all manner of bogus news narratives, many falsely exonerating Trump.
You cannot overstate the importance of spectacle to the MAGA right’s overall political project. Much of what this new committee does will be designed to create mere impressions of coverups, of wrongdoings, of all sorts of shady deep state conspiracies.
That will create immense challenges for the mainstream news media, which could feel obliged to treat these GOP efforts as serious “counter-investigations” into what has already been revealed about Trump. This will give them a sheen of legitimacy even before they’ve earned it. But there’s no reason to grant that presumption, given the long trail of flagrant abuses of the public trust we’ve already seen from them.