After Senate Republicans voted to conceal the evidence of Donald Trump’s high crimes, and acquit him of them without holding a real trial, House Democrats seemed to understand that he’d interpret the outcome not as a chastening brush with accountability but as permission to commit further crimes unbound.
“We’re going to have to be vigilant in Congress, we’re going to have to do everything we can to defend the institutions of our democracy as long as we’re forced to suffer his presence in the Oval Office and the threat that poses,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the House’s lead impeachment manager. “The senators who found him guilty but nevertheless voted to acquit I don’t think lived up to their oath to be impartial jurors, but that doesn’t relieve us of our obligation to defend our democracy when it’s at great risk.”
As Schiff spoke those words, Trump had already begun to assert dictatorial powers in acts of vengeance and impunity. He has since purged the administration of as many impeachment witnesses as possible, to cow anyone in the executive branch who’s contemplated exposing his corruption into silence. He has connived with Attorney General Bill Barr to provide special leniency to his criminal associates who face prison time for obstructing the Russia investigation. His administration began feeding his loyalists in Congress derogatory, confidential information about Joe Biden’s son so that they could do to one of Trump’s domestic enemies what the Ukrainian government did not. And his most predictable trick will come when Barr—who has asserted sign-off rights on all matters Trump cares about—inevitably lets slip that the presumptive Democratic nominee is under investigation.
That Trump now feels liberated to reach into the justice system to help his friends and harass his enemies was entirely foreseeable and indeed foreseen. But House Democrats have not demonstrated the vigilance Schiff promised. Quite the opposite, in fact. And in abdicating their duty to be vigilant they have left the country in greater danger than it would face if they took their powers seriously.
On Tuesday Trump pardoned or otherwise granted clemency to a bipartisan rogue’s gallery of disgraced political crooks who have flattered or donated money to him. He appears to be signaling to his criminal associates now in prison or awaiting sentencing that their pardons will come, so that they sit tight, and so that when he springs them from justice it will all get rolled into a broader story of his executive clemency spree.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made no comment of any kind on this abuse of power. The Republican Party of Illinois has technically taken greater umbrage at Trump’s latest outrage than House Democrats, but only because one of the beneficiaries of the spree was Illinois’s former Democratic governor, Rod Blagojevich.
Pelosi’s deputies revealed her thinking over the weekend in a New York Times story explaining that Democrats will downshift their emphasis on Trump’s corruption so that they can campaign on his threat to Americans’ health care instead.
In theory, this shift in emphasis could be exactly that—a slight reordering of resources so that vulnerable freshman members can campaign in their districts on the health-care bills the House has passed while the oversight committees of jurisdiction continue to investigate Trump aggressively. In practice, Democrats have ground meaningful oversight to a halt, and it’s against that backdrop that Trump has gone on the warpath.
There’s a reason Trump waited until after his impeachment to do these things. Trump is highly predatory, but like all predators he senses danger and engages in acts of self-preservation. During the impeachment, Democrats made a series of decisions to limit the scope and duration of the process, and Trump cheered these decisions, because they amounted to less scrutiny, constraint, and risk to him.
Trump won’t be removed from office, and the impeachment proved that Republicans will help him obstruct oversight by denying Congress documents and testimony from political appointees—but that’s precisely the environment in which Democrats exposed the Ukraine scheme, and in doing so, they upended the scheme itself and placed a brake on Trump’s broader corruption. Democrats can check Trump’s abuses of power simply by endeavoring to expose them, and to suggest they’ve done all they can on that front is to suggest that the impeachment inquiry unearthed the only 17 people in the multi-million person federal workforce and contracting sphere who have witnessed the administration’s criminal wrongdoing.
In fact, we know more such people exist, because they have made themselves known in just the past few days. House Democrats still have not subpoenaed Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton, and reportedly will not do so. They have also failed to seek testimony from Jessie Liu, the U.S. Attorney Trump effectively fired to assert control over the prosecutions of Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, and other cronies. One of the career prosecutors working the Stone case resigned from the Justice Department altogether after Barr intervened to protect Stone from a lengthy sentence at Trump’s urging. Rather than insist Barr explain himself right away, Democrats have agreed to put off his testimony for nearly two months. Democrats could, if they wanted, request the same type of derogatory financial information about Trump’s children that Senate Republicans have requested from the Treasury Department about Hunter Biden, but the sad reality is that Senate Republicans are investigating the Bidens with more urgency and fervor than House Democrats are investigating anything at all.
That includes matters related to health care. In 2018, different Justice Department lawyers resigned rather than follow political orders to ask courts to throw out the Affordable Care Act. One of Trump’s Tuesday commutations went to Judith Negron, who was serving a 35-year prison sentence for orchestrating a nearly quarter-billion dollar Medicare fraud in the swing state of Florida. Investigating these episodes would in no way conflict with the larger strategic goal of emphasizing health care. To the contrary, it would help advance that goal! The fact that House Democrats are uninterested points to a sobering conclusion: Democrats don’t want to shift emphasis away from investigations, but to sideline them altogether; their strategic thinking isn’t driven by the power of health care as a political issue alone, but by fear of confronting Trump in any sustained fashion. ‘
This amounts to a kind of unearned amnesty for the vulnerable Senate Republicans who helped Trump complete his coverup. Their votes were treacherous largely insofar as Democrats are determined to make them a campaign issue, and surface further evidence of the very corruption they sought to conceal. One advantage of announcing in advance that the House will investigate any pardons Trump grants to individuals who obstructed the Russia investigation is that reporters would fan out across the Capitol and ask Senate Republicans if Trump should face consequences for such pardons. But they have been given a free pass, for now, and perhaps for all time.
Yes, more damning details of Trump’s corruption will inevitably emerge, and Republicans will have to answer for them; Trump remains unpopular despite a strong economy because his rank incompetence and corruption are already widely understood; perhaps the fact that House Democrats have disarmed will even have the unintended effect of channeling anti-Trump distress into election organizing, since the only other institution with the power to protect the country from him has decided to stand down. But the decision to relent is nevertheless a fateful one. It’s the absence of scrutiny as much as the absence of consequences that have placed Trump above the law, and that has freed him to do dangerous things that will interact with the election in ways we probably haven’t even begun to fathom.