Why Democrats Don’t Hold Trump Accountable
U.S. President Donald Trump give a thumbs up at the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Shawn Thew/EPA/Bloomberg)

Why Democrats Don’t Hold Trump Accountable

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 to silence women who claimed to have had sexual affairs with Trump. 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 demonization 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 toward 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 behavior 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 (see: the 2018-19 government shutdown).”

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. Meantime, it was revealed that he had sought another foreign emolument this time, the transfer of the prestigious British Open golf tournament to his Scottish golf club. Every day brings the promise of new assaults on law and democracy.

Part of the problem is institutional. Congress, after ceding ground to the executive over many decades, now has far less institutional power. In 2015, before Trump’s election, Kevin Kosar, a veteran of the Congressional Research Service, wrote: “Today, the United States has an executive branch that can do just about anything it pleases, over the objections of the people’s representatives, and sometimes to spectacularly bad effect.” While the executive branch has ballooned, Kosar wrote, “Congress has downsized its research and analytical support staff by about one-third over the past 40 years,” thereby shrinking its capacity to joust with the executive.

Congressional scholar Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, co-author of an influential (and prophetic) 2012 book on the anti-democratic devolution of the GOP, cites “a wider abdication of responsibility by Congress, which includes leaving details of policy to executive agencies, giving and not subsequently rescinding sweeping emergency authority to the president through a slew of laws, putting a lower priority on oversight, and not using the power of the purse effectively to check and balance a president.”

Congress has been too meek, Ornstein insisted in an email. But the obstacles to oversight are also formidable. “Where the House has tried to move aggressively, it has been stymied by two factors the blanket refusal of anyone in Trump World to comply with requests for information, to testify when called, or to respond to subpoenas, and the frequent willingness of courts, mostly via Republican judges, to enable them. It is a witches’ brew of bad stuff.”

No one inside or outside government has been able to constrain the president’s abuses, fully explore the nature of his apparent subservience to one of the nation’s most hostile adversaries or exercise effective oversight over a subversive administration.

“I think what we have seen during this painfully illustrative three and a half years is that norms are not sufficient, but even statutory provisions are not alone enough, the Constitution is not alone enough,” said Schiff. “As we pointed out during the trial, if right doesn’t matter here anymore then it doesn’t matter how well our Constitution or laws are written because they can be ignored.”

Given a White House that is impervious to shame, bolstered by an attorney general who behaves more like the president’s  “consigliere” and backed by the complicity, silent or vocal, of the Republican Party (excepting Romney and a few others), what can Democrats, or anyone, do?

“This is a hard one,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, in an email. “I don’t know what a plausible model of effective oversight looks like right now given how little attention toothless House hearings will get, how likely they are to be seen as partisan by non-Democrats who do hear about them, etc. I can also imagine that, strategically, Democrats don’t want to turn the focus onto themselves when Trump is doing so poorly.”

Indeed, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has sought to keep her troops focused on the coming election, believing that only votes can bring true deliverance. She is not alone. “I’m inclined to believe little can be accomplished on corruption and the rule of law (beyond what is currently underway) until after the election, with Democrats in charge of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue,” emailed congressional scholar (and Ornstein co-author) Thomas Mann.

Trump’s acquittal by the Senate exposed a governing structure that is largely defenseless against an authoritarian breach — provided the authoritarian has sufficient accomplices inside the walls. The Founders installed safeguards, including the Electoral College, to keep out demagogues. In case of a breach, they provided impeachment. But to succeed, impeachment requires democratic parties acting in the interests of democracy. “It’s obviously an imperfect remedy when the party of the president acknowledges the president’s guilt but expresses its unwillingness to use the remedy,” said Schiff.

If the question is how to expel a dangerous threat from the heart of democracy, “have another election” seems a shaky answer. It was an election, after all, that installed the threat in the first place. In their 2018 book “How Democracies Die,” authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt detail democracies destroyed not by coup or invasion but from within by the winner of an election who turns democracy’s inherent vulnerabilities against itself.

From Venezuela to the Philippines, democratically elected leaders have curtailed democratic practices and oversight to advance their interests. Hungarian leader Viktor Orban used elections to gain power, and then used his power to reshape elections, politics and the media, the better to win more elections and exercise more power. It’s an unvirtuous circle familiar to Vladimir Putin, among others.

Levitsky and Ziblatt show that the greatest safeguard of democracy is not elections, which can be won by demagogues, or government oversight, which can be thwarted once a demagogue gains power. It’s the vigilance of political parties. “Put simply, political parties are democracy’s gatekeepers,” they write. The parties must take responsibility both to foreclose access to demagogues and to reject alliances with illiberal parties. “How Democracies Die” has successful examples of both.

The Republican Party, however, has already let the demagogue inside. Party leaders failed to coordinate to stop Trump in 2016. Instead of aligning with an illiberal party pushing from the outside, the GOP is fast becoming an illiberal party itself. As a result, the means of democratic revival are narrower, the time more fleeting.

The election of 2018, which transferred power in the House from Republicans to Democrats, was a milestone in rebuffing Trumpism. The haphazard spread of the coronavirus, and the Twilight Zone mismanagement that facilitated it, may be the preface to another one. Polls show Trump and Republicans battered by the White House failure. Public confidence in Trump’s presidency continues to decline. It’s impossible to dismiss the potential for electoral sabotage over the next four months, sourced from Russia, the Oval Office or elsewhere. Trump’s public refusal to concede in the event of defeat is itself a visceral attack on democracy. But without a change in the context or direction of the race, or an extra-democratic intervention, Trump appears on course to lose. 

Schiff said he and Democratic colleagues are working on reforms to make it easier to check the corruption of a wayward president — in effect, post-Trump reforms in the spirit of the post-Watergate reforms of the 1970s. “I think there will be bipartisan support,” Schiff said. “Not necessarily in this Congress where Republicans all live in fear of an angry tweet, but I do think when this president is gone, these reforms will have bipartisan support. Republicans will not want a Democratic president to behave as Donald Trump did and abuse the power of his office. They will suddenly have an interest in their own institution again.”

But Schiff acknowledged the limited utility of even strengthened laws against empowered anti-democratic forces. Hyper-partisanship, along with the erosion of democratic values in one of the major parties, and the fraying of the forbearance that long enabled power to pass smoothly from one party to another, have savaged democratic norms. Yet laws, in the end, are also acutely vulnerable. Trump has proved that with party support, the law can be overrun.

That leaves only elections. 

“Ultimately the people have the power either to embrace or repudiate this anti-democratic lurch of the country under Donald Trump,” Schiff said. “And if they embrace it then God help us. The Founders did count on the good sense of the American people and I’m counting on it, I believe in it, I have reason for optimism about it. But, ultimately, Americans will get the kind of democracy that they want. And they express that desire at the polls.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. 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.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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