Nancy Pelosi, Elijah Cummings, Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff (Getty/ AP/ Salon)

Congress comes back: Are Democrats finally ready for serious investigations?

After eight months of sluggish inaction, Democrats may finally be forced to hold Trump and his lackeys to account


Heather Digby Parton
September 6, 2019 1:10PM (UTC)

When the Democrats were on the brink of winning the House back in 2018, there were many giddy columns written about the fact that the country would finally get the congressional oversight of the Trump administration that had been lacking under Republican rule. Axios reported that in addition to all the scandals surrounding the Mueller probe, the administration was "preparing for hell" anticipating investigations into Trump's businesses and tax returns, violations of the emoluments clause, Jared Kushner's ethics violations — including his mysterious security clearance — all the corruption among Cabinet members, and the lackadaisical approach to classified information, just for starters. The list was very long.

They needn't have worried too much. The Democrats didn't move quickly on any of that, instead preferring to wait for the results of the Mueller investigation and pass aspirational legislation that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to even consider, much less pass. They issued subpoenas for documents and interviews that the White House simply refused to honor, sending everything to the courts. When Attorney General Bill Barr put his thumb on the scale for Trump with his "letter" on the Mueller report announcing that the president was pure as the driven snow, Democrats insisted on waiting for the full report.  Once it was released, they insisted on waiting for the redacted pages to be released to them. That went to the courts as well. All of this has had the effect of slowing everything down to a crawl.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made it clear from the beginning that she didn't want to pursue impeachment of the president and, in practice, didn't really care about accountability for Trump and his minions, preferring to concentrate on passing legislation that was responsive to "kitchen table issues" and drawing a sunny face on the Democratic Party going into 2020. Aggressively taking on Trump doesn't really fit that strategy.

Before Congress adjourned I wrote that the August recess could be pivotal in whether that strategy would hold. If Democrats' constituents raised the issue back in the districts it could change some minds. Unlike in 2009, when Republicans stormed the town halls, crudely shouting down their representatives for having the temerity to try to ensure that Americans could see a doctor without going bankrupt, Democratic voters were more polite. So the press didn't cover it much. However,  voters did show up, and a lot of them were talking about impeachment.

Politico reported that "voters across the country — from California to Pennsylvania to Massachusetts — grilled House Democrats on the potential impeachment of President Donald Trump at a series of events." What's more, these weren't coordinated events like the Tea Party brawls:

Instead, people lined up at the microphones eager to discuss specifics of Trump’s actions as outlined in former special counsel Robert Mueller's report and the House’s lawsuits — a kind of detailed knowledge and energy that suggests pro-impeachment sentiment is more deep-rooted than simply an antagonistic anti-Trump movement and could be impossible for Democrats to ignore long term.

Pelosi herself faced raucous protesters at one event. They held up black tapestries printed with the words  “We can’t wait” and chanted, “Which side are you on, Pelosi? Impeach!” Whether that had an effect on the Democratic leader is unknown but we do know that 134 Democrats, plus former Tea Party Republican Justin Amash of Michigan, now support impeachment.

Now that the House will be back in session, there is likely to be some lively debate over gun control — which will almost certainly die in the Senate, as everything does these days — along with some more wish-list bills for the Democrats to put on their résumés. Maybe we will also see some focused energy put toward oversight of the executive branch, which is getting more out of control by the day.

There have been some hopeful developments on that score. House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., has announced that he considers his committee to be conducting an impeachment inquiry, even though no formal vote has been taken. Legal observers have said this should give him more ammunition before the courts as they considering all these stonewalling maneuvers by the White House.

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During the break, House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., confirmed that his panel is working with the Judiciary Committee in a very unusual arrangement. According to Politico, Schiff has signed off on a legal strategy that would closely bind the two committees together "as the process unfolds." Apparently this is all about the question of Trump welcoming Russian help in 2016 as he secretly pursued a business deal in Moscow. It's good to know that the Democrats still find this outrageous act of corruption and betrayal worthy of concern, particularly since new examples of Trump's inexplicable and self-destructive attitude toward Russia continue to this day.

Meanwhile, it appears that a credible whistleblower has approached the House Ways and Means Committee with evidence of “inappropriate efforts to influence” the mandatory audit of President Trump's tax returns. (These are done routinely for all presidents.) Committee chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., has lately been pushing harder in the case to obtain Trump's prior returns, and this will add fuel to the fire. This new information could be explosive.

Meanwhile, the House Oversight Committee under chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., will be working overtime looking at the administration's outrageous actions, from the cruel border policy to the process for granting top security clearances to family members. And Nadler's Judiciary Committee just announced that it plans to hold hearings into the Trump hush-money scheme and the oddly abrupt closure of the case by the Southern District of New York. Its members also plan to look into Trump's reported dangling of pardons to aides who agree to illegally seize land to build the border wall. Abuse of power of that sort is what impeachment charges are made of. All of that is in addition to the ongoing Judiciary Committee investigations pertaining to obstruction of justice.

There's more, of course. The Trump administration's scandals number in the dozens. Perhaps that's why Democrats have seemed so flummoxed. There are new scandals every day, and the administration and the Republicans simply refuse to acknowledge that anything is amiss. It's disorienting.

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But simply waiting for the voters to take care of everything at the ballot box (assuming there are even fair elections) in the face of Donald Trump's high crimes and misdemeanors makes Democrats appear as out of touch with reality as those people who watch Fox and listen to Rush Limbaugh. These crimes are not discrete events that happened in the past. They are ongoing and they are serious. Let's hope the Democrats can muster the energy to address this breakdown in our system so that people are held accountable for what they've done. Otherwise it's going to happen again.


Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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