Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned Democrats on Wednesday that investigating Donald Trump’s (allegedly criminal) financial and business practices would only “help the president get reelected” in 2020 — because voters don’t have much taste for “presidential harassment”:
REPORTER: Democrats have made clear that if they do win back the House, they plan to launch many, many investigations into the president and the administration. They’ve made clear that one of their lines of inquiry is going to be the president’s tax returns, the president’s businesses, the president’s hotel contract … do you think that’s a legitimate line of inquiry for Democrats to be talking about?
McCONNELL: I think it’ll help the president get reelected. I remember the price we paid when — actually, we did impeach Bill Clinton. I remember all the enthusiasm, lots of Republicans in the House and Senate — “boy, this is the ticket, this is gonna make us have a great year.” It worked exactly the opposite. The public got mad at us. … this business of presidential harassment may or may not quite be the winner they think it is.
Needless to say, Mitch McConnell is not earnestly worried about Democrats squandering their opportunity to regain power in 2020. Like most of the Majority Leader’s pronouncements, his reflections on “presidential harassment” are aimed at shaping reality, not describing it.
Republican operatives know that Democrats will probably hold the lower chamber next year. And they know that a Democratic House will have no shortage of uses for its investigatory authority. As Axios revealed in late August, GOP staffers have already put together a spreadsheet of all the Executive branch scandals that congressional Republicans have been covering up:
• President Trump’s tax returns
• Trump family businesses — and whether they comply with the Constitution’s emoluments clause, including the Chinese trademark grant to the Trump Organization
• Trump’s dealings with Russia, including the president’s preparation for his meeting with Vladimir Putin
• The payment to Stephanie Clifford — a.k.a. Stormy Daniels
• James Comey’s firing
• Trump’s firing of U.S. attorneys
• Trump’s proposed transgender ban for the military
• Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s business dealings
• White House staff’s personal email use
• Cabinet secretary travel, office expenses, and other misused perks
• Discussion of classified information at Mar-a-Lago
• Jared Kushner’s ethics law compliance
• Dismissal of members of the EPA board of scientific counselors
• The travel ban
• Family separation policy
• Hurricane response in Puerto Rico
• Election security and hacking attempts
• White House security clearances
Thus, McConnell is trying to rebrand congressional oversight as “presidential harassment,” and, thereby, propagate the notion that any Democratic investigation of White House malfeasance is partisanship run amok. After all, as Brett Kavanaugh has (conveniently) argued, the commander-in-chief has enough on his plate without the nuisance of having to explain to Congress how his personal business empire is influencing his foreign-policy decisions, or why so many Puerto Ricans died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, or what his administration plans to do with the hundreds of children it effectively kidnapped.
All that said, McConnell has a scintilla of a point: Republicans’ efforts to impeach Bill Clinton during his second term were not well-received.
Donald Trump is much less popular than second-term Clinton. And in recent months, some polls have actually shown plurality support for his impeachment. But there is some cause for thinking that an impeachment drive would create some political difficulties for Democrats. A significant portion of independent voters (40 percent in one USA Today poll from late August) aren’t onboard with removing Trump from office. Further, the composition of the Senate ensures that any impeachment effort will fail (barring an event cataclysmic enough to turn McConnell’s caucus against the president), and thus, potentially dispirit the very Democratic base it was meant to energize
But Democrats can investigate Trump without impeaching him. And using the House’s oversight powers to amplify damaging narratives about one’s political opponents has actually worked quite well for McConnell’s party. House Republicans might have overstepped with Bill, but their “harassment” of Hillary Clinton worked like gangbusters: Despite the fact that their years-long investigation of Benghazi produced no evidence that the secretary of State had committed any wrongdoing, the mere existence of the probe was sufficient to persuade a large segment of the public that Clinton was personally responsible for the deaths of American soldiers overseas.
In May 2016, a poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University found that a majority of independent voters — and a sizable minority of Democrats — believed that it was either “definitely” or “possibly” true that “Hillary Clinton knew the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi was going to be attacked and did nothing to protect it.”
If House investigations of baseless conspiracy theories can be this politically effective, probes of already-proven scandals — like, say, the president’s history of dodging hundreds of millions in taxes through illicit means — would presumably be even more damaging.
One of the odder challenges Democrats have faced in the Trump era has been the sheer abundance of White House scandals. With the administration generating novel outrages at a nigh-exponential rate, revelations that would have defined previous presidencies wash out of the news cycle in a matter of hours. But control of the House Oversight Committee would empower Nancy Pelosi’s party to decide which Trumpian misdeeds linger in the public consciousness. More concretely, it would allow Democrats to put their preferred narrative about the Trump-era GOP — that it is a party of corrupt billionaires, by corrupt billionaires, for corrupt billionaires — in the headlines on a regular basis.
And then, of course, investigating the Trump administration’s flagrant violations of the public trust would also allow Democrats to fulfill Congress’s constitutional obligation to check abuses of power by the Executive branch.
It’s plausible that McConnell simply cannot comprehend the concept of a constitutional or civic obligation. But there’s little doubt that he recognizes the potential damage that “presidential harassment” could do to his party. His remarks to the contrary are about as credible and sincere as Fred Trump’s tax returns.