Democrats Divided on Trump-era Scandals
Americans should unite to demand better oversight that focuses on important issues over partisan gotcha games.
The real power struggle in DC isn’t between Democrats and Republicans. It’s between the permanent government and our elected leaders who, in theory, are supposed to control it. The bureaucracy prevails upon new presidents to drop old controversies, and it usually works.
This week, The Washington Post published an opinion piece headlined “The Biden team is making terrible excuses for keeping Trump’s secrets buried.” The article is essentially a press release for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).
CREW is suing to obtain a Justice Department memo that concluded the former president did not commit obstruction of justice. Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee is still trying to get its hands on Mr. Trump’s tax returns from long before he was even elected.
The Post op-ed decries executive branch resistance to transparency on these issues and cites CNN reporting that “congressional Democrats are increasingly pessimistic that the Biden administration will release” the contested documents.
The Justice Department's stance shouldn't be a surprise, given that Biden came into office with a team that was vowing to move on from the Trump-era controversies.
It shouldn’t be a surprise because this is what always happens.
George W. Bush’s Justice Department resisted transparency on Clinton-era controversies. Barack Obama’s Justice Department resisted transparency on Bush-era controversies. And Donald Trump’s Justice Department resisted transparency on Obama-era controversies
Trump himself, by contrast to Bush and Obama, called loudly and frequently for exposing misconduct under his predecessor, but met fierce resistance from both the permanent government and even some senior political appointees.
Does the Justice Department resist transparency to serve new presidents’ political need to focus on a positive agenda for the future?
Or, does the Justice Department resist transparency to serve the permanent government’s institutional need to avoid public scrutiny of its own conduct, both past and future?
In my experience, the latter seems more likely. For example, the government’s secret warrant application to spy on Trump campaign associate Carter Page would never have been provided to Congress in early 2017 if the Justice Department had its way.
Obtaining and scrutinizing the application—which turned out to be seriously flawed—required a chairman willing to tell his own party leadership and the newly elected president that the Deputy Attorney General nominee was going nowhere until the Senate Judiciary Committee got some answers. That chairman was my boss at the time, Chuck Grassley (R-IA).
The current chairman, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), could similarly have threatened to delay his own party’s high-profile nominees in order to force more transparency. Instead, Democrats appear to be relying on a court-focused strategy—typically a losing one for the legislative branch.
According to CNN:
The House committees that investigated Trump, however, have vowed to keep pursuing their cases that are tied up in court. Democrats argue that they're important not just to assert Congress' power to subpoena the executive branch, but also that the information they obtain could be relevant politically with Trump continuing to flirt with a comeback 2024 presidential bid.
Congress rarely gets a sympathetic ear from the judicial branch when asking to use the court’s authority rather than its own Constitutional tools to get information. That’s especially true if the subpoenas in question were issued on a partisan basis and the partisans involved admit to CNN that their oversight is actually a political fishing expedition for presidential election purposes.
The permanent bureaucracy usually wins because it is large, well-funded (thanks to Congress), more experienced, and in the game for the long haul. Its army of attorneys focuses on long term institutional interests regardless who happens to be in the White House at the moment. And, they generally have little trouble convincing a new president to stiff-arm Congress at every turn—even one like President Biden who was himself a career legislator.
By contrast, Congress usually loses because it has far fewer and less experienced staff. It is under public pressure to keep committee budgets a tiny fraction of the giant agencies they are supposed to oversee. And, its power is divided among 535 constitutionally elected officers. That’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and they don’t speak with one voice on anything, not even their own institutional interests. That’s the one area where there should be unity. But, there is no permanent infrastructure comparable to the executive branch to focus on preserving and expanding congressional oversight authorities.
No wonder Congress tends to focus on short term political expediency and partisan divides. However, it has the power to be a more effective and more muscular check against the executive branch. It would require a better understanding of its constitutional authorities to act on behalf of the American people and the political will to do so. That can only happen with broad public support.
If Americans of different political views were able to unite in demanding more effective and more meaningful oversight from their elected representatives, perhaps more Members of Congress would take the time and summon the will to do better. But, as long as every effort to pry information from the executive branch is initiated on a partisan basis and viewed solely through partisan lenses, that’s unlikely to happen.
In order to get broad bipartisan support for more effective oversight, Congress would need to focus on more important issues than digging through a former president’s tax returns.
A serious inquiry into how well our public health bureaucracy prepared for a pandemic, for example, would mean delving into conflicts of interest and U.S. taxpayer funding for the Chinese lab that just happened to be where the outbreak occurred. That seems like something Americans of all political stripes should be able to support.