With less than 50 days to go until the election, exhausted House Democrats—staring down fresh oversight challenges from a president who just keeps on serving them up—are embracing a Jesus-take-the-wheel approach: putting faith in the voting public to exercise the ultimate check on Donald Trump.
On a Tuesday morning outside the U.S. Capitol—days after the release of a whistleblower complaint alleging, among other things, that Trump administration officials have been severely downplaying the extent of Russian interference in the 2020 election—the question of how House Democrats might keep up at a time like this prompted Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) to offer a disbelieving chuckle. Which then morphed into a full-on fake sob, played up for effect.
Malinowski’s initial reaction to that question might sum up how many of his colleagues are feeling right now—almost comically fatigued at the prospect of confronting a new crisis, a breakdown of election security protocols, in a presidency that’s been full of crisis. But his actual answer to the question indicated a broader hope among Democrats that the light at the end of the tunnel may finally be near.
“Impeachment is the tool the Constitution gives us to deal with serious abuse of power in between elections,” said Malinowski, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who was sharply critical of Trump during that impeachment process. “When you're two months from an election… the American people are going to have their say very, very soon.”
With campaign season in full swing and Congress consumed with attempting to respond to a devastating pandemic, House Democrats’ apparatus of Trump oversight is decidedly on the back burner. The party is of course planning to do its due diligence in responding to the issues that have come up, like the whistleblower complaint, but with impeachment far behind in the rearview and the administration continuing to stonewall requests for documents and testimony, there’s a realization that Democrats may have reached the limit of their oversight powers.
“It feels that way sometimes,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), “but I obviously think we still have to pursue every avenue, turn over every rock... I mean, right now, it's pretty much in the hands of the American people.”
No Democrat is arguing that they should take a laissez faire approach to oversight of the Trump administration’s stewardship of the executive branch. But in a complete departure from their typical election-year form, many in the party are increasingly confident that the American people will exercise the ultimate check on Trump—by voting him out.
“We're at a point where everything matters,” said Malinowski. “I don't think it helps the president to be seen as trampling on legal norms, especially in a moment where he’s trying to run a campaign based on law and order… It's not so much that the Hatch Act is a burning issue, a burning kitchen table issue for families in districts like mine, but people understand the law is the law.”
Democrats are “finally confident” Trump is heading toward defeat, a House aide told The Daily Beast, and are largely trying to “avoid Trump shit.” Appetite for much of anything on Capitol Hill beyond securing additional COVID aid—much less more hearings about Trump’s conduct—is slim to non-existent within the caucus, said the aide, even among members of the key committees that have led oversight for the past two years. “The election is a month out… Most members are focused on putting their heads down and getting reelected.”
Across the Capitol in the Senate, however, the imminence of the election is only fueling Republican-led probes into the Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), who is leading a hunt for dirt on Biden’s ties to Ukraine, has been so explicit about the nature of his investigation—Johnson has said it will prove Biden’s unfitness for office—that even members of his own party have cried foul. "It is not the legitimate role of government, for Congress or for taxpayer expense, to be used as an effort to damage political opponents,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) at a meeting of Johnson’s committee on Wednesday.
Johnson is expected to release a final report on his investigation within weeks; so too is Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), whose Senate Judiciary Committee is diving into a top hobbyhorse for Trump: the origins of the FBI investigation into his campaign in 2016. Graham announced on Thursday that former FBI Director James Comey will testify publicly for that investigation on Sept. 30.
But, as the Democratic aide noted, there is virtually no expectation that the run-up to the election will yield more blockbuster oversight hearings in the House. At this stage, most Democrats believe the Trump administration has so degraded its oversight obligations that the notion of getting key officials under oath to answer their questions within the next six weeks is laughable. Their responsibility now, they say, is to use their power to shed as much light as they can on the administration’s activities and let the public decide what to do with them.
“Our role is to provide exposure for these facts and to help inform their decision,” said Malinowski. “Ultimately, the wheels of accountability move slowly, but Congress can play a very important role in establishing facts that could ultimately bring violators to justice.”
A lead figure in that effort is poised to be Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. On Sept. 11, Schiff announced that his panel would be expanding its investigation into “politicization” at the intelligence service of the Department of Homeland Security. That issue spilled into public view with news in early September of a whistleblower complaint from Brian Murphy, the former chief of the DHS’ intel arm, who said that White House brass directed him to stop providing intelligence on the threat of Russian interference in the 2020 election—on the grounds that they made Trump “look bad”—and to focus on threats from China and Iran instead.
Schiff’s panel has requested that Murphy appear on Sept. 21 to answer questions. No broader public hearing related to the politicization probe has been announced, though some believe it’s likely one could get scheduled. Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), a member of the Intelligence panel, told The Daily Beast that Democrats want to send a message that Trump administration officials, such as Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf, “do not have an election-time exemption from following U.S. law.” Wolf declined to appear before the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday, flouting a subpoena for his testimony.
There are also other election-security targets on Democrats’ minds: recent suggestions from Trump about sending federal personnel to polling places on election day—a notion Attorney General William Barr has backed up—have deeply worried them. Many members remain concerned about the U.S. Postal Service’s handling of an election that will hinge on the integrity of the vote by mail process—a process Trump undermines constantly. And House Democrats are still steaming over the administration’s provision of reams of State Department documents to Johnson’s probe in the Senate—while Democrats’ own oversight of the State Department has been completely stiffed.
There have been oversight victories on some of those fronts: in August, the House Oversight Committee held a high-profile hearing with the Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, that was central to their pushback on Trump’s handling of the USPS.
Veterans of congressional oversight efforts, looking at the broader trajectory of recent months, are concluding that Democratic attempts to hold Trump accountable have simply hit a wall. Molly Claflin, an attorney with the group American Oversight and a former Democratic staffer to the Senate’s Trump-Russia investigation, doesn’t blame them.
“What they’re doing is to try and bring attention to the issues—I think that’s the best they can probably do,” Claflin told The Daily Beast. “They’ve been forced to kick it to voters… Congressional oversight as we know it has, like many things, been broken by the Trump administration, and it’s going to take some time to figure out what meaningful oversight means in this new world we have.”
With six weeks to go until Nov. 3—and with early voting getting underway shortly—Democrats are bracing for October, or even November, surprises, convinced that there’s no length to which Trump won’t go to secure his own reelection. Some lawmakers, like Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), are already raising the alarm about the likelihood that Joe Biden wins the election but the outcome is undermined by Trump, who has insisted he will not lose an election that isn’t “rigged.”
“In the age of Donald Trump, if we have learned nothing else it is that we must be prepared for the worst,” said Raskin. “We have to just go out and fight. We need to create a landslide election that cannot be stolen, and then we need to counter all of the propaganda and disinformation, and then we need to put all of our best lawyers in a position to block the efforts to obstruct the election.”