Where are the Trumpghazis?

Investigating the Trump administration's misdeeds would be good for democracy — and Democrats

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Remember that it was the Republican House majority's spurious and endless Benghazi inquiry that uncovered former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's email practices. The subsequent drumbeat of stories about a completely inconsequential scandal helped torpedo her favorability numbers and led the media to cover the inquiry to the exclusion of almost any other policy issue in 2016. As then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy admitted in 2015, "everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi Special Committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping." McCarthy was even forced to drop his bid to be speaker after admitting to the partisan abuse of power. That was back when there were still some consequences in politics.

The news that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance had convened a grand jury in the criminal investigation of the Trump Organization last week was a reminder that the 45th president and his con-artist clique have so far faced almost no consequences for their misdeeds. As the former president, who has done more than any human being alive to imperil American democracy, continues to tease another destructive presidential run in four years, it is long past time for Democrats to launch their own congressional investigations into the malfeasance of the 45th president and his allies, both to reveal the unvarnished truth of what happened under the Trump administration and to help derail Republicans' chances of getting back into power in 2024.

Once again Democrats need to emulate their tormentors – not by having President Biden illegally strongarm Attorney General Merrick Garland into investigating whatever he asks him to, or by wasting taxpayer time and money on frivolous committee hearings, but by understanding that legitimate congressional investigations will both establish the truth for the record and also likely turn up all kinds of additional damaging information about Trump and his associates.

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If Trump had overseen a squeaky-clean executive branch, there would be no moral or legal justification to go on these fishing expeditions. But that's obviously not the case. The four years of the Trump administration were among the most spectacularly corrupt in American history, but because Trump installed a smarmy loyalist named William Barr as attorney general in 2019 and shamelessly fired the executive branch's internal watchdogs whenever they made a peep, it all went mostly uninvestigated, or at least unacted upon. It's not just that Barr improperly misled the public about the sprawling Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election – it's that, among many other things, he sat on his hands as Trump and his officials engaged in a wide variety of corrupt and abusive tactics.

All recent attention has been focused on the (obviously futile) effort to create a bipartisan investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Now that GOP overtures have been proven conclusively hollow, Democrats should simply create "select committees" (those formed to probe something specific, as opposed to "standing committees" like Veterans Affairs) in both chambers of Congress. In particular, those committees should seek to understand the inexplicably slow response of federal authorities to the sacking of the Capitol, what role Trump played in inciting the mob and then delaying reinforcements, and whether any other Trump administration officials or members of Congress aided and abetted the insurrectionists.

But they shouldn't stop there. Democrats should form a series of select committees to investigate the administration's crimes and abuses of power. They can start with all the improper taxpayer spending and foreign influence-peddling at Trump-owned properties, including Mar-a-Lago, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., and the former president's other private clubs for rich people, where he spent an inordinate amount of time in office. As a Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) report points out, "346 executive branch officials made 993 visits to Trump properties" during his time in office, to say nothing of the 361 visits by 143 members of Congress. Because Trump used the presidency in large part as an integrated marketing opportunity for his holdings, Congress should also look into the illicit use of government offices to build the family's brand.

Then there's the Hatch Act, which prohibits executive branch employees from engaging in partisan activity using their official titles or deploying the federal government and its resources for campaign purposes. An October 2020 report from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) alleges that 14 Trump officials violated the Hatch Act more than 50 times, perhaps most egregiously when Trump himself delivered his acceptance speech for the 2020 Republican National Convention from the South Lawn of the White House.

Beyond the insurrection itself, Congress should be asking about the full scope of Trump's plot to overturn the 2020 election, including whether improper pressure was applied on state and local officials to interfere with democratic outcomes. A committee would also be the perfect place to ask the Michigan state legislators who traveled to D.C. to meet with Trump two weeks after the election whether the former president or any of his advisors tried to get them to illegally overturn President Biden's victory there. Perhaps no statutory crimes were committed, but it is essential that Democrats keep this conspiracy in the headlines and in the public's consciousness, since the GOP will be running the same playbook in 2024.

One place that Democrats are already doing this kind of work is the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. In addition to looking into the actions of private companies awarded contracts by the Trump administration, and whether Trump played partisan politics with PPE and tests early in the pandemic, the committee is investigating whether officials interfered with and undermined CDC guidance. But in classic Democratic Party form, it is approaching the disaster as a series of discrete policy mistakes and acts of corruption, when what is needed is a narrative and strategy that can get press attention, a through-line that can tie the ineptitude of the Trump administration to the tragic reality that the United States was more or less defenseless against a catastrophe experts had been warning about for decades.

Here's a hodgepodge of other questions that Democrats should assign to either a permanent or a select committee, in no particular order: Who paid off Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh's debts shortly before he was nominated in 2018? Who was responsible for limiting the FBI investigation into Kavanaugh's alleged past misconduct? Why were key impeachment witness and National Security Council Staffer Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his brother Yevgeny abruptly fired in February 2020? Or to choose at random among any of the dozens of corrupt acts by Trump cabinet officials: Why did Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's wife) create a special pipeline for Kentucky infrastructure projects?

Perhaps Garland's DOJ is already on top of some of these things. But we're talking about a target-rich environment here, full of thieves and crooks and self-dealers who are staging an ongoing assault on American democracy and who are waiting for another chance to seize power and finish the job. Democrats can't afford to wait and see whether Garland has the time or resources to address all of these problems. As with efforts to shore up democracy through reform, they must use the power they have before it's too late.

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