Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 | 2 a.m.
One of the unofficial slogans of the Trump era — besides “grab ’em by the you-know-what” and Rudy Giuliani’s recent “truth isn’t truth”— is “nothing matters” (sometimes preceded by a nihilistic “lol”).
President Donald Trump flouts the Constitution, raking in money from supplicants who curry favor with him by patronizing his gaudy hotels. Congress is silent. The president’s commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, was accused of effectively stealing more than $120 million in various schemes — Forbes described him as possibly one of the “biggest grifters in American history.” It barely registered in the headlines. ProPublica reported that a trio of random Trump cronies with neither military nor government experience is secretly running the Veterans Affairs Department out of Mar-a-Lago. Republicans have made no plans for hearings. The president’s former lawyer testified that Trump directed him to commit felonies to cover up alleged affairs before the election. The shock lasted about 48 hours.
This culture of impunity is less a result of Trump’s political skill — he’s deeply unpopular — than of one-party rule. The majority of voters want a check on this administration, but the Republican Party doesn’t care; it’s beholden to a minority that delights in the helplessness of fellow citizens. If Democrats take the House in the November midterms — which the model of the statistics website FiveThirtyEight gives them about a 70 percent chance of doing — that helplessness ends. Contrary to Republican claims, there are no Democratic plans for imminent impeachment proceedings. But there will be subpoenas, hearings and investigations. Things that haven’t mattered for the past 19 months suddenly will.
Axios recently reported that Republicans are circulating a spreadsheet of investigations that House Democrats could undertake should they take control of the chamber. It was compiled by cataloging Democratic requests for documents and interviews that Republicans previously ignored, and it doesn’t necessarily tell Republicans much about Democratic priorities. Still, Republicans are right to be worried.
Democrats who are likely to head key committees say they aren’t planning revenge; it’s important to them to show that they can govern. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wants to make sure Democrats emphasize bread-and-butter issues like the rise in prescription drug prices. “One thing I’m not looking for is retribution,” he told me. “I’m just trying to get to regular order, I swear to God.”
But regular order entails a level of accountability that the Trump administration has never faced. Adam Schiff, who is poised to lead the House Intelligence Committee if Democrats win a majority, plans to renew the committee’s investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. (He insists that for Democrats, the investigation never stopped.) Schiff said he’ll look at the work being done by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, and by the Senate Intelligence Committee, and figure out where the gaps might be. “One that I would put as very important is the issue of whether the Russians were laundering money through the Trump Organization,” he said.
If Democrats prevail in November, his committee won’t be the only one examining Trump’s finances. Under a rarely used 1924 law, leaders of three congressional committees — the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation — can each demand to see the president’s tax returns. “You’re not going to find out whether this president put the United States in jeopardy because of his financial dealings unless you get his tax returns,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., who sits on the Ways and Means Committee and has made obtaining Trump’s tax returns a signature issue.
This month, after the ProPublica revelation that Mar-a-Lago members were dictating Veterans Affairs policy, House Democrats Julia Brownley and Annie Kuster wrote a letter calling for an investigation by the department’s inspector general. “Taxpayers want to know that their tax dollars are going to high-quality care for our nation’s heroes, not to line the pockets or egos of President Trump’s billionaire boys club,” Brownley said at the time. In a Democratic House, Brownley and Kuster would be in line to run key Veterans Affairs subcommittees, where they’ll be in a position to demand answers. “The goal, obviously, will be to get to the truth,” Brownley said.
Cummings, meanwhile, said he plans a two-lane process, combining attention to national issues that transcend Trump with scrutiny of the administration. “We are in a fight for the soul of our democracy,” he said. “So I understand that for me to effectively do that second lane that I just talked about — voting rights and all those good things, prescription drugs — I need to have the democracy intact.” The Trump administration, he said, needs to be exposed, which might mean hearings into the way Trump is profiting off the presidency, or on abuses of the security clearance process. “What we’re going to have to do is try to create a new but appropriate sense of what is normal,” Cummings said.
Over the past 19 months, we’ve heard the phrase “This is not normal” a lot. If Democrats lose in November, it will remain an impotent mantra of the resistance. If they win, it becomes an accusation backed by subpoena power.
Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.