World·Analysis

Trump's new reality in 2019: Fending off an emboldened Congress

Democrats won back the U.S. House of Representatives in November by talking about everything but Donald Trump. That's over now, writes Keith Boag.

Members of Democrat-majority House have promised more investigations into U.S. president

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, left, will get the Speaker's gavel back this week, as part of the Democrats' takeover of control of the U.S. House of Representatives. The Democrats have promised numerous investigations into U.S. President Donald Trump's administration and businesses. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Seldom does a new Congress arrive in Washington so confident that its two-year term will be of historic consequence.

Democrats won back the House in November by talking about everything but Donald Trump. That's over now.

A veritable tsunami of events since the election guarantees that the ongoing investigations of the Justice Department and the media into the Trump administration and his businesses will be joined and possibly upstaged by similar scrutiny from the various House committees of the 116th Congress — all of them controlled by Democrats.

For a start, there's Trump's new identity: Individual 1.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller, investigating Trump's 2016 campaign ties with Russia, named the president as "Individual 1" in court filings and implicated him in two election law felonies. Mueller didn't have to do that — the crimes were relatively modest. But he made a deliberate and purposeful choice to entangle the president.

Mueller is not inscrutable. What he's thinking can be inferred from what he does. In this case, the moment Mueller linked Trump to actual crimes, it set off an instructive public debate about whether a sitting president can be indicted — as Mueller surely knew it would.

The logical answer is yes, because no one is above the law. But the Justice Department is guided by policies that protect a sitting president from indictment. That's partly because of the distraction that indictments might impose on the presidency, and partly because of an obscure theory — the unitary executive theory — that some argue means the president really can be above the law.

Pelosi and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, left, are expected to face off with Trump again in 2019 as the battle over borders and budgets heats up. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Mueller has led people to question whether it's right that only the House, with its power to impeach, can bring charges against a president. And it's worth considering if he would have bothered triggering such a debate if the only case he has against this president is for election law violations.

More investigations promised

At the same time, Democrats see the Trump administration wrestling with deep internal conflicts over policy and allegations of corruption that raise separate questions about the president's fitness for office.

For one thing, there's been an awful lot of palace intrigue these past several weeks. Trump's West Wing has always had a reputation for bitchy dysfunction and an inclination to let petty plotting suck up most of the oxygen in and around the Oval Office. But even by that standard, the White House comings and goings since Nov. 6 have been remarkable and ominous.

The day after the midterm elections, the president fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and replaced him temporarily with a sympathizer who could oversee the Mueller investigation as it homes in on Trump's presidency.

A permanent replacement, William Barr, will face Senate confirmation, likely this month, in an atmosphere tense with suspicion about how Barr will handle the investigation of the president. Maybe he'll say whether there are limits to the Justice Department's policy against indicting a sitting president.

Then there's the resignation of Secretary of Defence James Mattis. It was formalized through an astonishing letter that even a light parsing revealed as an imputation that the commander-in-chief is naive, reckless and cares more for America's rivals than for its allies. U.S. historians have found nothing that compares to it.

Because of those high-level exits, it scarcely caused a ripple that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke also packed up and left, apparently to forestall the new Congress poking around in the thick cloud of alleged ethics violations enveloping him.

The fates of Flynn, Cohen, Manafort

Along with all this, proven criminality has moved closer to the president since the elections. Senior confidants and advisers — Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort — are on their way to prison or facing sentencing for serious crimes. The judge in the Flynn case seems convinced from his reading of the secret parts of the sentencing documents that the former national security advisor committed crimes significantly more serious than those for which he's been charged. 

Even by Trump's standards, the White House comings and goings since the midterm elections on Nov. 6 have been remarkable. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Plus, entirely new areas of investigation are surfacing.

After Nov. 6, and independent of Mueller's Russia probe, the New York Attorney General alleged that Trump's "charity," the Donald J. Trump Foundation, exists largely as a scheme for illegally funneling cash to the Trump family. The family responded by shutting down the foundation and negotiating how to give away its remaining assets.

The Trump inauguration committee is reportedly also under investigation for misuse of funds. It raised record amounts of money for the swearing-in celebrations in January 2017, but where all the money went is a mystery.

Meanwhile, the government is partially shut down in spite of a bipartisan deal to keep it open, apparently because that deal didn't pass muster with right-wing media personalities such as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham. Trump killed the deal reportedly out of fear the pundits would ridicule him for getting short-changed on his border wall.

The Democrats' dilemma

It bears repeating that all of these things happened in the relatively short period after the midterm elections — which, according to @realdonaldtrump, were a triumph for him because the Senate wasn't lost, too.

"Now we can all get back to work and get things done!"  he tweeted then.

Well, hardly.

The incoming Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Democrat Adam Schiff, for instance, is planning to reopen a probe into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia.

Schiff has also said he might have hearings into what's going on with Trump's North Korea outreach. If that's the case, why wouldn't Schiff also try to get to the bottom of Trump's private two-hour meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki last year, or delve into relations between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and what they know about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi?

And, of course, Democrats will demand the president's tax returns.

It is their constitutional duty to investigate and, if necessary, think about whether they need to defend the Republic against the president — whether, in other words, to consider impeaching Trump because they believe it's the right thing to do, even if it's politically dangerous and unlikely to lead to a conviction in the Senate.

But it could be a fatal mistake for Democrats to become preoccupied with investigation. They not only have a responsibility to help govern, they have an interest in doing so to push back against the criticism that they don't stand for anything.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe continues after a spate of indictments, including one around campaign finance issues in which the president is identified as 'Individual 1.' (The Associated Press)

So Democrats find themselves in an odd place — on one hand, girding to pick at almost every aspect of the president's public and private life, and perhaps even try to drive him from office; and, on the other hand, with an opportunity to  benefit from working with him if they think they can call some of the shots.

Trump has an interest in that part, too. The 2020 presidential election race has begun, and if he intends to run again he will probably want something more to show for his time in office than just the unpopular tax cut Republicans gave to him last year. Whether he gets something more depends on whether Democrats can be persuaded to give it.

How all the whiplash and tension between legislating and investigating gets worked out will primarily be the tricky task of Nancy Pelosi after she gets the Speaker's gavel back this week. But it does seem that for better or worse, this Congress is destined to make history of real consequence for America — and for Individual 1.

About the Author

Keith Boag

Washington Correspondent

One of the CBC's premier political reporters, Keith Boag is currently based in Washington, D.C., following stints in Los Angeles and on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

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