House Democrats finally authorized subpoenas this week to get the full Mueller report. They got serious about requesting Trump’s tax returns. They issued four subpoenas related to the White House security clearance process and the administration’s effort to put a citizenship question on the census.
But this all comes three months into Democratic control of the House of Representatives. For many liberals watching, it’s about damn time.
This was exacerbated by House Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings (D-MD) telling ABC News that while he will issue subpoenas, he doesn’t “want to be issuing” them. His comments weren’t well received by those critical of the Trump administration.
For two years, Democrats watched Republicans skirt oversight responsibilities and campaigned on holding Trump and his administration accountable. After all, the biggest difference between a House minority and a House majority is subpoena power.
I really don't understand the reluctance. I don't understand any part of this approach of spending two years rightly warning the public about the dangers of an unchecked Trump administration then agonizing over doing anything about it, like it was all a ruse. https://t.co/D4pbgAIJIP— Brian Beutler (@brianbeutler) April 2, 2019
House Democrats insist this seemingly slow walk to subpoena territory is all part of the strategy. They say they want to give the White House a chance to comply with their requests voluntarily. But the Trump administration has clearly been reluctant to turn over anything — whether officials for testimony, or key documents — something Democrats are calling a clear attempt to stonewall major investigations into the president, his administration, his businesses, and his family.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-MD), who chairs the House Oversight subcommittee on government operations, said he understands the want for urgency, but called it a “balancing act.”
“We aren’t going to conquer Rome in a day. I think we need to try to make a public case and bring as much of the public along with us in terms of why we are doing what we are doing and what we are doing.”
Although they started issuing some serious requests, they’re still waiting on key documents from the Trump administration on what went wrong in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria; they’re waiting on testimonies from White officials about security clearances; they’re waiting on more information about Trump’s national emergency declaration on the southern border. The list goes on.
“It’s still very early in this new Congress, we are trying to show prudence and responsibility,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), who sits on the House Judiciary Committee and is rumored to be weighing a presidential bid.
House Democrats agree they’re approaching investigations methodically
In conversations, several House Democrats on the Oversight and Judiciary Committee seem to agree: House Democrats have to be methodical and judicious with how they address their investigations into the Trump administration, they say. They’re not going to rush into anything.
But the perceived wisdom behind this strategy is varied; some say it’s about building a legal case, others are trying to make a moral argument about taking the high road in investigations.
1) They want to get support from the public
There’s an overwhelming consensus that the way House Democrats are approaching these investigations has to do with how they are viewed by the public. They see a mandate in the 2018 elections, flipping more than 40 seats to claim the majority, but it’s clear that there is emphasis being put on the scales of public opinion.
“This approach is critical to earn the trust and confidence of independent voters in a very polarized time,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who also sits on the House Oversight committee, adding that it’s important that House Democrats work is perceived as Congress’ constitutional duty, and not just an attempt to “score partisan points on the president.”
A January poll from the Washington Post and ABC showed a majority of Americans support House Democrats’ investigations into Trump’s 2016 campaign, foreign relationships, and personal financial ties and records. It’s less clear if the public is up to speed on the specifics of authorizing subpoenas, or whether they are paying attention at all.
Nonetheless, Democrats see wisdom in doing this methodically.
“Republicans, in sort of uniformly opposing subpoenas, forget that every time we have a debate, it gives us opportunity to make the case with the public, and if you look at the polling data, we are winning with that debate,” Connolly said.
But Connolly said it’s important that “people can see we are not just rushing into [it] and just being trigger-happy with subpoenas.”
2) They want to build a stronger legal case if they’re challenged in court
Then there is the understanding that some of House Democrats’ requests may end up in court — particularly requests for Trump’s tax returns. The House Ways and Means Committee finally requested them Wednesday night, starting what will likely be a lengthy legal fight.
That same concern is playing out over the Mueller report.
“As I understand it, legally, it’s best if we give a period of accommodation to the Attorney General that would be important if it’s challenged in court, so we should be giving him a period to comply,” Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN), who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said of the decision to wait between authorizing subpoenas for the Mueller report and issuing them.
Of Democrats’ strategy around investigations overall, Cohen was clear: “I think we should be whatever the law allows us to,” he said. “I think we should be aggressive but within the limits knowing that this could end up in court that we don’t get jeopardized in court.”
3) There’s an element of moral high ground
Underlying it all is a feeling that Democrats are taking the moral high ground.
“We don’t like that they act that way; why do we want to act the way they do?” Swalwell said. “We respect the rule of law. They don’t. So I think it’s about not reducing ourselves to what we despise about the way they act.”
House Democrats have broad oversight authority
That House Democrats would investigate Trump was baked into the 2018 midterm elections. Trump allies predicted a White House “under siege,” according to the Washington Post.
And the oversight authorities are broad. Of course, congressional committees can’t bring criminal charges, but they can reveal misconduct.
As Jeff Hauser, who runs the transparency and accountability group Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic Policy and Research, penned in an October op-ed for the Hill, Democrats could really claim an agenda around oversight:
Wonder whether Robert Mercer’s hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, is getting a sweetheart deal from Trump’s IRS? Demand the records from the IRS, as Trump’s tax returns are not the only billionaire’s tax returns subject to congressional request.
Wonder about payday lenders’ treatment of consumers while the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been sidelined? Issue subpoenas. Curious how much “Big Pharma” spends on marketing versus research and skeptical of the current public facing numbers? Issue subpoenas.
Want to know all the gross details of private equity’s evisceration of Toys ‘R’ Us and Sears and so many other formerly thriving employers? Issue subpoenas. Wonder what effect Blackstone is having on the housing markets or if foreclosure fraud is still ongoing? Issue subpoenas.
It’s taking longer than some would like to see, but Democrats are determined to do it their way.
“I understand that we are probably going methodically and therefore slower than some would like, and I understand the pent-up appetite to just get this done,” Connolly said. “It’s sort of like Goldilocks. One’s too hot, one’s too cold, one’s just right. Hopefully, we will arrive at that point of equilibrium where it’s just right.”