It Is Called Congressional Oversight, Mr. President

President Donald Trump delivering the State of the Union address, February 5, 2019. Looking on: Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

What President Donald Trump calls “ridiculous partisan investigations” is constitutionally sanctioned congressional oversight. And, if the number of tweets and other comments are any indication, Trump is very worried about those investigations. He should be!

Congressional oversight refers to the accepted function of Congress to review, monitor, and supervise federal agencies and programs Congress has authorized and funded. The oversight role derives from implied powers granted Congress in the Constitution. Congress could not responsibly exercise its powers without knowing what the executive is doing. Nor does Congress’ role in legislating end with passage of a bill.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff

Republicans during the first two years of Trump’s presidency supinely abdicated their oversight responsibilities; Democrats, who now control the House of Representatives, will not. The day after Trump demanded in his State of the Union address an end to investigations, several House committees announced their plans. House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, issued a statement citing “credible reports of money laundering” and laying out a multi-faceted probe into Trump, the Trump 2016 presidential campaign, other members of his family, and business associates. 

Other committees are beginning to focus on sensitive targets, including the quest to secure Trump’s suppressed tax returns. The chair of the Judiciary Committee prepared a subpoena for acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker in case he attempts to duck questioning. Another House committee will look into administration rule-bending during the recent 35-day partial government shutdown. And, perhaps most worrisome for the president and those around him, the Oversight and Reform Committee is readying its broad probe into the administration’s myriad ethical lapses.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi warning Trump not to threaten the prerogatives of the House.

Trump’s attack on congressional investigations included a threat: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly struck back. “Presidents should not bring threats to the floor of the House,” she said. “It’s not investigation; it’s oversight. It’s our congressional responsibility, and if we didn’t do it, we would be delinquent in our duties.”

How is Trump’s threat to work? Imagine this scenario: Congress passes a bipartisan infrastructure bill, a possibility Trump has said he favors. At the same time, the Intelligence Committee is questioning Donald Trump Jr., about family business activity in Russia in 2016. Will Trump, in a fit of pique, not sign an infrastructure bill? Or Congress passes a drug cost-reduction bill, which everyone allegedly supports. Does the president veto it? What if Congress overrides the vetoes, assuming Republicans develop a spine?

In a one-person pity party, Trump tweeted Thursday morning about the investigations, “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT! It should never be allowed to happen again!” He also tweeted, “The Dems and their committees are going ‘nuts.’ The Republicans never did this to President Obama.” Actually, Mr. President, that statement is “nuts.” It is true there were never wide-ranging investigations of Barack Obama’s private businesses, for an obvious reason: Obama did not have a private business. We know that because he released his tax returns. Besides, Obama was squeaky clean, unlike the current mafioso-like president. Not that various non-congressional entities did not try to besmirch Obama. Trump surely remembers his connection to the odious and racist “birther” movement.

President Barack Obama

Republicans in Congress did investigate everything but Obama during the Obama years, turning up zilch in virtually every case, but not before spending millions of taxpayer dollars in the quest for dirt. Congressional committees looked into Operation Fast and Furious, a failed sting program organized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Another probe looked into unproven allegations that the IRS singled out conservative groups by rejecting their applications for nonprofit tax status. The inept rollout of the website to sell Obamacare policies received undue attention. A federal loan to the solar-panel company Solyndra was investigated as an instance of “crony capitalism.” And, finally, who can forget the mind-numbing number of committee hearings looking into the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya? 

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifying about Benghazi.

The object of the Benghazi probe was Hillary Clinton, Obama’s first secretary of state and the presumptive Democratic 2016 presidential nominee. While errors occurred in the response to the terrorist attack, now-House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy foolishly admitted the real motive behind the endless investigations. “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy said in September 2015. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”

None of the investigations came close to Obama because, when it came to the president, there was nothing to investigate (not much else to probe regarding the rest of his administration, either — in contrast to the advisers Donald “Drain the Swamp” Trump has assembled). But, Trump is different. He leaves the odor of scandal on everything he touches. He called Schiff a “partisan hack” after first pretending he never heard of the new chair of the House Intelligence Committee, a pure Trumpian example of the alternate reality he weaves. Trump must have forgotten the time he tweeted a vulgarity riffing on Schiff’s name.

Trump can hurl all the insults he wants (and he will with all that “executive time” on his calendar ). Schiff, however, has the gavel, and he understands “why the idea of meaningful oversight terrifies the president. Look, several associates of his have gone to jail. Others are awaiting trial.”

Posted February 8, 2019

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