President Trump, in case you hadn’t noticed, is not pleased at the prospect of Democrat-led investigations of his campaign and his business.
You probably noticed that he carved out time in his State of the Union address to suggest that investigations of him would be as harmful to the economy as war. Or perhaps you noticed that he called Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), now the head of the House Intelligence Committee, a “partisan hack” on Wednesday after pretending that he’d never heard of Schiff — a claim undercut by his having previously turned Schiff’s name into a vulgarity in a tweet through the clever replacement of F’s with T’s in Schiff’s name.
Or perhaps you ignored the news this week until Thursday morning, when new Trump tweets caught your eye.
“So now Congressman Adam B. Schiff announces, after having found zero Russian Collusion, that he is going to be looking at every aspect of my life, both financial and personal, even though there is no reason to be doing so,” Trump wrote. “Never happened before! Unlimited Presidential Harassment.” He added in another tweet that the “Republicans never did this to President Obama, there would be no time left to run government.”
This, he said in a later tweet, was “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT.”
There are a few things worth picking out from Trump's comments.
First, Trump’s claim that Schiff and his committee found “zero Russian [c]ollusion:” This is true, sort of. During the first two years of Trump’s presidency, the Intelligence Committee was helmed by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who served on Trump’s transition team and whose loyalty to Trump bordered on the obsequious. Under Nunes’s leadership, the committee filed a completed report exonerating Trump — despite not interviewing various key witnesses such as former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The report, released only under the auspices of the panel’s then-Republican majority, seemed to have been written specifically to clear Trump of collusion charges, a conclusion the president rapidly embraced.
Which is to say, there was probably some meat left on the bone. On Wednesday, Schiff pledged to pick it clean, raising Trump’s ire.
The more remarkable assertion Trump made in his tweets Thursday, though, was that Republicans never opened full-scale investigations of President Barack Obama. To put it simply, this is not true.
It is true that Republicans never opened wide-ranging investigations of Obama’s private business — because Obama didn’t have a private business. We know that because Obama released his tax returns showing his income stream (a lot of book royalties) for the years leading up to his presidency. Trump didn’t.
What’s more, red flags have been raised about Trump’s private business during his time in politics — its role in the hush-money payments made to two women before the 2016 election, the money it has received from foreign nationals or companies seeking favorable treatment from the government, a proposed development in Moscow — that certainly justify having some questions answered.
Trump, like many other fervent conservative media consumers, would have liked to have seen a bunch of random personal investigations of things such as Obama’s birthplace or his college records, ideas that grew like bacteria in the swamps of the far-right during Obama’s time in office. Congress didn’t investigate those things because they were not worth congressional inquiries.
What the Republican-led Congress did investigate during Obama’s administration was nearly everything else. Congressional committees looked into a failed ATF sting program (dubbed Operation Fast and Furious). They investigated how the IRS purportedly focused on conservative groups to reject their applications for nonprofit status. They investigated the failed launch of the website meant to sell Affordable Care Act policies. They investigated a federal loan to a solar-panel company called Solyndra as a purported example of “crony capitalism” on behalf of Obama’s friends. And, of course, they investigated the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, over and over.
Those latter investigations were pointedly political, given that they involved Obama’s first secretary of state, a woman named Hillary Clinton who was understood to be a likely Democratic presidential candidate in 2016. The inquiries spanned various details about the attacks, including rumors about commands given, reinforcements withheld and, in great detail, the development of a public statement offered in response to the attacks.
There were real mistakes made and lessons to be learned, but the density of the investigations was best explained by now-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in an interview.
"Everybody though Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” he said. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”
None of the investigations above came particularly close to Obama himself. The ATF program resulted in Obama’s attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., being held in contempt of Congress. The IRS investigation led to some resignations — and revelations that some liberal groups were also scrutinized. The Affordable Care Act website was a mess, but it soon worked as intended. The Solyndra deal was part of a federal loan program that, despite that one failure, wound up making money across its investment portfolio.
Trump tweeted about Solyndra no fewer than 15 times, including once saying that the “government loan and subsequent bankruptcy prove that @BarackObama is both corrupt and inept” — an ironic position for Trump to take, given his history with failed businesses.
Republicans — including Trump — understood that a central point of many of these investigations was to cast Obama (and then Clinton) in an unfavorable light — with the potential side benefit of digging up information that was politically damaging. (Clinton’s private email server came to light only as a result of one of the Benghazi investigations.) So Trump views Schiff’s actions in that same light: driven by politics.
To some extent, of course, he’s right: Schiff and other Democrats are indeed opening more robust investigations of Trump in part because they will damage Trump politically. But it’s also clear that there are legitimate things to investigate, as there were at times during the Obama administration.
Trump entered the world of politics with no background in the arena, no record to look at, and no prior vetting of his background and history. He trumpeted his business background as proof of his ability but then declined to share standard information about his economic background beyond what was legally mandated for his personal financial disclosure. He won the presidency on reputation and rhetoric alone, because of a campaign staffed largely by longtime allies and people from outside the (broadly vetted) Republican establishment. He spent two years with allies on Capitol Hill who were uninterested in poking around in the closets of a president whom their own voters largely viewed in a positive light.
And then the midterm election happened.