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Democrats Might Be Too Afraid of Their Own Power to Aggressively Investigate Trump

Let Waters run free. Photo: Zach Gibson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Like a friendless high-school freshman whose parents are away for the weekend, the Democrats have control of the House — but nothing all that exciting to do with it. With Mitch McConnell calling the shots in the Senate, and Donald Trump sending tweets from the Oval Office, the new House majority is unlikely to advance any major legislation, and is incapable of directly obstructing the White House’s war on the regulatory state, or its steady conquest of the judiciary.

Still, the House does provide the Democratic Party with one vital source of unilateral authority: The power to conduct rigorous oversight of the Executive Branch; to investigate its alleged acts of malfeasance; and to subpoena documents or administration officials to further such inquiries.

And in the Trump era, that’s no small thing. Over its first 20 months in office, this administration has produced what would have, heretofore, passed for a presidency-defining scandal on a near-daily basis. There is, of course, the president’s ongoing campaign to undermine the independence of federal law enforcement; his apparent use of U.S. military deployments as a campaign tool; ostensible violations of campaign-finance law; shameless profiteering off the presidency; gross violations of information-security protocols; use of mass child abuse as a tool for border enforcement; personal business relations with a Saudi government whose murder of an American resident he has enthusiastically apologized for; lackluster response to the hurricane crisis in Puerto Rico; and failure to so much as staff many key federal offices; among many, many other things. Meanwhile, just about every major Cabinet official has seemingly committed at least one major ethics offense.

All these acts of audacious corruption, and brazen derelictions of its duty, led several lifelong conservatives to endorse Democrats in the 2018 midterms, on the grounds that an aggressive, congressional opposition was necessary to safeguard the rule of law from a renegade White House. The American electorate echoed that endorsement, turning out in record numbers to rebuke the president’s party, thereby giving Team Blue its biggest House gains since right after Watergate, and the largest victory in the House popular vote than either party has seen in decades.

But while a majority of American voters — and wild-eyed radicals like George Will — want the new House majority to zealously investigate the president’s malfeasance, some moderate Democrats aren’t so sure. As Politico reports:

Rep. Maxine Waters is running into an unexpected obstacle in her bid to investigate a president who has mocked her as a “low IQ person”: members of the California Democrat’s own party.

Waters, the incoming chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, has promised to follow the “Trump money trail,” targeting the Trump Organization’s hundreds of millions in loans from Deutsche Bank, the German lender that has been under scrutiny in connection with Russian money laundering. But the committee has a handful of moderates who worry that such aggressive moves will backfire.

“The American people will understand thoughtful, well-grounded investigations,” said Rep. Jim Himes, a Connecticut Democrat. “But they will bridle at investigations that seem overtly political.”

… While much of the base wants lawmakers to take on Trump and big corporations that have benefited from his tax cuts and deregulation, more moderate members fear that oversight investigations will be a distraction or cause political blowback for the party. They want to see a policy focus instead and don’t want to be pulled too far to the left.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), who in 2016 flipped a seat long held by Republicans, said the financial services panel “ought to be able to walk and chew gum.”

“There’s a good opportunity for more access to credit and housing reforms,” he said. “Oversight’s important, but I just think we’ve got a broader responsibility.”

Here, Representative Himes echoes a sentiment recently expressed by Mitch McConnell — that Democrats must tread carefully when investigating the president because voters have little tolerance for partisan witch hunts. But the idea that aggressive investigations of the Trump administration would be politically risky for Democrats — as opposed to that scandal-plagued administration — is absolutely bonkers.

The theory appears to rest on exactly one data point: After the Republican Party’s incessant probes of the Clinton administration kicked up the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the GOP suffered a disappointing midterm election in 1998. As McConnell recalled in October:

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.

There are many problems with this analogy. Democrats are not (currently) planning to impeach the president for lying about his infidelities, but merely to investigate his administration for alleged acts of malfeasance. Donald Trump is far less popular today than Bill Clinton was in 1998. But the biggest flaw in McConnell’s argument is this: The GOP’s “harassment” of the Clinton White House did turn out to be a “winner” — just a couple years later than the party had expected. While Democrats came through the 1998 elections unscathed, by 2000, the Lewinsky scandal had done immense damage to Clinton’s public image. So much, that Al Gore and Karl Rove would both (reportedly) come to believe that Clinton’s scandals cost his vice-president the 2000 election. As Gallup reported in March of that year:

The idea that Al Gore’s presidential campaign may be hurt by the vice president’s close association with President Clinton has been widely discussed almost since the Monica Lewinsky scandal became public in early 1998. Both Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush seem to recognize this fact — Gore by immediately addressing the issue in the first televised debate he had with Bill Bradley, and subsequently by saying that while Clinton made a mistake, “the people” want to move on to other issues; and Bush, by constantly referring to the corruption in the “Clinton-Gore” administration, careful to ensure that Gore is not seen as separate from the president.

A special analysis of Gallup poll results among likely voters in January, and again in February-March, suggests that the “Clinton factor” may indeed be significantly hurting Gore’s campaign, and that the net effect may be about 8 percentage points in the difference between Gore’s and Bush’s support. That difference is enough to change the race from one in which Bush currently enjoys a slight, though significant, lead of six points, to one that would give Gore the lead by a bare two points – essentially a tie.

But one doesn’t need to look decades in the past to see the political efficacy of unabashedly partisan congressional investigations: Despite the fact that their years-long probe into the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi produced no evidence that the secretary of state had committed any wrongdoing, the mere existence of the investigation was sufficient to persuade a large segment of the public that Hillary 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.”

Illustration: The Washington Post

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.

All of which is to say: There is simply no basis for thinking that Democrats will pay a political price for prioritizing investigations of Trump over helping the president score bipartisan policy victories. Any Democrat who says otherwise — or implores his colleagues not to squander their “opportunity for more access to credit and housing reforms” — is less concerned with safeguarding the party’s electoral interests than using divided government as an excuse to advance Wall Street’s.

House Dems Might Be Too Afraid of Power to Go After Trump