When President Donald Trump recently commuted the prison sentence of Roger Stone, his longtime ally and now a convicted felon, reaction on Capitol Hill was swift.
Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, the respective chairs of
the House of Representatives’ Oversight and Reform and Judiciary committees, promptly issued a joint statement. “By this action, President Trump abused the powers of his office in an apparent effort to reward Roger Stone for his refusal to cooperate with investigators examining the President’s own conduct,” said the chairs of two of the most august committees in the House. “This transparently corrupt commutation damages public confidence in the justice system and the rule of law.”
Then Maloney and Nadler brought down the hammer. “Among other things,” they stated, “we intend to seek an immediate briefing from the White House Counsel on the circumstances surrounding Roger Stone’s commutation.” Intend to seek? A . . . briefing? Among . . . other things?
There are countless examples of the broken state of our national government — the mounting deaths from Covid-19 chief among them. But few are more distressing than the chairs of two powerful congressional committees intending to seek a briefing about impeachable conduct.
True, Democrats have tried. They held public hearings with the president’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, as the lawyer, under oath, described Trump’s alleged involvement in insurance fraud and an illegal payoff scheme. More recently, they took testimony from Geoffrey Berman, the federal prosecutor whom Attorney General William Barr falsely claimed had resigned but who in fact Barr had fired under highly suspicious
circumstances. They demanded an end to Trump’s corrupt purge of inspectors general. They issued subpoenas to executive branch employees. They impeached the President of the United States, presenting voluminous evidence of guilt from a range of credible witnesses and documents. It wasn’t enough.
In a telephone interview, Representative Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence who led the House’s impeachment case, recounted a familiar litany: The wholesale disregard for our institutions
of Congress; the blanket
defiance of congressional oversight; the personal intervention by the president in cases before the Justice Department; the willingness of the attorney general to establish a second standard for friends and criminal allies of the president; the attacks on the inspectors general (the list goes on and on); the demonisation of the institution of a free press as the ‘enemy of the people’; things that
are the usual respite of dictators — all of these have become hallmarks of the Trump administration.
It’s a sign of Trump’s spectacular volume that Schiff left out other stunning abuses like the abductions of migrant children from their parents, a likely human rights crime, and the funneling of millions in public tax dollars and private campaign contributions into Trump businesses.
While Trump has excelled at breaking government, Democrats have been impressive, too, at failing to restrain his violence towards democracy. “Is it possible that Democrats are just bad at oversight?” poses Sarah Binder, a political scientist at George Washington University and an expert on Congress. “Perhaps. But I think the real challenge is leveraging and keeping the press’s attention given this ceaseless 24/7 news cycle and the near-constant fireballs sent out by the president.”
Democrats, Binder said, confront a “flood of potential inquiries. One day the president’s daughter is advertising canned beans on her public Twitter page, the next day the president is claiming credit for shutting down Covid-19 testing sites. There’s only so much alleged malfeasance that Congress — and the media — can shine a light on.”
The inability of Democrats to deliver consequences for outlandish behaviour elicits howls from Democratic partisans and advocates of rule of law, who repeatedly demand more aggressive tactics. “A sternly worded letter won’t stop fascism,” former Bernie Sanders aide David Sirota chided.
Congressional scholar Molly Reynolds of the Brookings Institution points out that Democrats have failed to use what is arguably their most potent weapon. “To me, the biggest unused tool in Congress’s toolbox is to use the power of the purse to threaten to defund some of the executive branch’s most egregious overreaches,” Reynolds emailed. “The biggest challenge here is not necessarily getting Republicans on board; it’s that the reliance on large omnibus spending bills passed on the brink
of a government shutdown makes it harder to pick fights with the White House over individual spending provisions because the cost of doing so is so high.”
Still, Congress pulled its biggest sledgehammer, impeachment, out of the shed, and thanks to every Republican senator but Mitt Romney, it had little discernible effect on Trump’s conduct. If anything, his acquittal emboldened him.
In just the past week, Trump refused to commit to abide by November’s election results and unleashed a secret army to escalate tension — that is, violence — in an American city, against the express demands of its mayor and governor. He committed to altering the decennial census, in defiance of the plain language of the Constitution, to benefit Republicans.
Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and US domestic policy
for Bloomberg Opinion. He was
executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist