But Democratic lawmakers are concerned that the transition of power itself might make that task even more of a maddening ordeal than it’s been the last two years—because they’re worried the Trump administration will shred the receipts on the way out.
In a rare move this week, all of the House’s committee chairs signed a letter to the White House, reminding officials, “you are obligated to ensure that any information previously requested by Congress… is saved and appropriately archived in a manner that is easily retrievable.”
That Democrats felt compelled to issue such a reminder reflects their lack of confidence in the Trump administration. Rep. Sean Casten (D-IL), who helped organize the letter, told The Daily Beast the idea sprang from a late-night conversation with his colleague Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) “trying to figure out what are those things that could go wrong” during a presidential transition.
“We as Americans have all been anxious about what someone with the narcissistic tendencies of Donald Trump would do during a transition, and to what degree that would put our democracy at risk,” said Casten, who said the lawmakers aimed, through the letter, to put the administration on notice and to let civil servants know that Congress has their backs. “The Trump Administration acts in accordance with statutory requirements,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere when asked about the Democrats’ letter.
If Trump administration documents are retained and accessible, they could form the basis of something that’s eluded Democrats for the last two years: investigations that actually reveal significant new information, on topics ranging from the COVID-19 response to the administration’s immigration policy to its use of public resources.
But even then, several House Democrats told The Daily Beast that they will have to make tough choices as a caucus about how much investigatory firepower to devote to the Trump presidency and where to focus it.
“There are a number of essential investigations going on that should continue until they come to a natural conclusion,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), a member of the House Oversight Committee, but he added that House Democrats will be facing a busy schedule of legislating next year. “There will undoubtedly be a sifting and culling process, undertaken with leadership of the House,” the Maryland Democrat said.
Before that, however, lawmakers must grapple with a bizarre transition in which the sitting president who’s defied them for years is, in one last middle finger, refusing to acknowledge his defeat. That refusal has extended to the machinery of the federal government, with the usually obscure General Services Administration dragging its feet on acknowledging Biden as the winner of the election.
The GSA, which administers federal office space, has not yet issued a customary letter officially “ascertaining” Biden as the president-elect, insisting they can only do so “once a winner is clear based on the process laid out in the Constitution.”
Though Biden has built an Electoral College lead Trump cannot surpass, the existence of Trump legal challenges to election results has given the GOP, and now the GSA, cover to ignore the transition of power. In the interim, Biden’s team cannot access the $6 million set aside to facilitate the transition, forcing them to rely on private donors; nor can it access many federal resources needed to do its work.
The episode has put into motion an all too familiar cycle for House Democrats: they demand answers, and don’t get any.
On Monday, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA), who chairs the Oversight Committee’s panel on the federal government, sent a letter to Emily Murphy, the GSA administrator, requesting a briefing on her decision-making. “Your actions delaying ‘the orderly transfer of the executive power’ fly in the face of congressional intent and ignore the will of the people while endangering public health and national security,” wrote Connolly and his Democratic colleagues. The congressman has yet to get a response.
Meanwhile, outside groups, such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, have urged Connolly to bring in Murphy before lawmakers for hearings.
Asked by The Daily Beast about these efforts, Connolly said the Trump administration was “playing with fire.” When it comes to Democrats’ response, he said, “all those options are available”—referring to hearings, subpoenas for testimony and documents—”and inevitably are going to be examined.”
House Democrats will also now have to balance their thirst for knowledge about the Trump administration with an incoming Democratic president who will undoubtedly have a new set of priorities to consider.
“We’re not gonna get out ahead of the Biden team,” said Connolly. “We’re obviously going to respect their decisions about strategy and defer to them at this delicate moment.”
When Biden does eventually take office—after a campaign of promising to unify and heal the country—the appetite for aggressive Trump oversight on Capitol Hill is likely to diminish. Democrats will have a smaller majority then before, having lost seats in the 2020 election, and there’s widespread concern that they could lose the majority outright in the 2022 midterm.
But most members agree, for example, that they’d have a broad mandate to probe the Trump administration’s botched coronavirus response, to the extent those records are retained for the Biden administration to divulge. Casten, for his part, said that he’s written to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for months, requesting information on how they’ve been prioritizing the flow of crucial items to COVID hotspots.
“I’ve been asking for that information since April not because I’m trying to get into a fight with the president,” said Casten, “but because I don’t want people to die… it’s not so we could pursue some criminal accountability, we’re trying to do our jobs as members of the U.S. government.”
And lawmakers like Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA), who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, are hungry for answers on the administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the U.S. border, a practice that has horrified members of both parties.
“We have not been able to get straight answers from the administration with respect to family separation. What happened, why, how did it happen?” she asked, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “There has to be some coming to grips with… what is the scope of the problem we need to fix.”
But on some of the most hot-button investigation items of the last two years—Trump’s politicization of everything from intelligence to the Department of Justice, his business dealings abroad, his administration’s use of official resources—Democrats might feel the pull to move on, said Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, which conducted the impeachment inquiry.
“Though the temptation to go low is there, we have a job to reestablish the decency and competency of our government,” said Himes. “We have to be forward-looking around what we’d like to have, as opposed to what Donald Trump may or may not have done.”
Top Democratic lawmakers have not yet signalled that Trump-related investigations will be a priority for the House majority next year, and even those who have expressed interest caution that with Biden in office, the clear focus will be on the coronavirus response and the Democratic policy agenda.
“The top priority of the House—and presumably the entire government—will be on crushing the coronavirus and rebuilding our economy, and the Committee will play a key role in those efforts,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), chair of the House Oversight Committee, in a statement to The Daily Beast. Maloney added that the committee “will prioritize our investigation into skyrocketing drug prices, restoring the U.S. Postal Service, and ensuring that the census is accurate and complete.”
Few lawmakers disagree with those priorities. But plenty of them believe that part of their duty in the post-Trump era entails understanding how exactly this president wielded his power, in order to prevent similar abuses from happening in the future.
“There are some essential constitutional boundaries that have been trampled over the last four years,” said Raskin, who mentioned the Constitution’s emoluments clauses—a favorite topic of his—which prohibit the president from using the office for self-enrichment. During his time in office, Trump has directed a steady stream of business to his personal properties, frequently taxpayer-funded business, raising serious questions about the extent of his profit in office.
“We need to have a reckoning with what has taken place in terms of violation of basic principles,” said Raskin, and consider “new legal mechanisms that will prevent any repeat of exploitation of the office in the future.”
Pulling off this balance will be difficult, said Casten. “None of us want to be in this position,” he said. “But we have to ask ourselves what we can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”