House Democrats play hardball. Are the 2020 candidates watching?

House Democrats play hardball. Are the 2020 candidates watching?

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House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), joined at right by the ranking Republican on the committee, Doug Collins (Ga.), confer before a resolution was passed to subpoena special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s full report, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Wednesday. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Democratic House chairmen of key oversight committees have been rather restrained, all things considered, in asking for key materials (e.g. the Russia report from Robert S. Mueller III, President Trump’s financial records, documents and witnesses relating to the White House granting security clearances over the objections of career national security employees). However, it’s now April, and the president’s stonewalling has exhausted their patience.

The Post reports:

The House Judiciary Committee voted 24 to 17 along party lines to authorize its chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), to subpoena the report and underlying documents of Mueller’s probe from Attorney General William P. Barr.

The panel, which has jurisdiction over impeachment, also voted to subpoena five former White House officials it believes may have received documents relevant to the special counsel’s probe.

The timing is auspicious, since we learned Wednesday through what seems to be a leak from the so far leak-free Mueller team that Barr didn’t represent what’s in the report, according to some prosecutors. (Mercy me, what a shocker! Actually, no one paying attention to the court filings and Trump’s public conduct would buy that his exoneration is complete as Barr indicated on the collusion portion of the investigation and as he decreed on obstruction.) The New York Times reports:

Some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations.

Moreover, The Post reports that “members of Mueller’s team have complained to close associates that the evidence they gathered on obstruction was alarming and significant.” Even more disconcerting, “Some members of the office were particularly disappointed that Barr did not release summary information the special counsel team had prepared, according to two people familiar with their reactions.” These summaries were no doubt scrubbed of classified information.

And yet Barr chose to share so little in his letter summarizing the key findings, which he later claimed wasn’t really a summary of the report at all. Barr bemoaning Mueller’s refusal to render a decision on Trump’s liability for obstruction of justice is rich considering that it is the Justice Department’s own guidelines that prevent prosecution. (In Watergate, the independent counsel submitted a road map to Congress, since he well understood it is Congress’s job to consider impeachment.)

If the investigators are right and if, in whatever we see of the report and from whatever testimony Mueller provides, there turns out to be a whole lot of evidence of wrongdoing, Barr should be forced to step down for acting like Trump’s PR man, not the attorney general of the United States. In such circumstances, Trump’s declaration of innocence will be one more lie seeking to obscure the facts. We can understand then why Barr is slow-walking release of the report and insisting on several categories of redactions.

Over in another committee, the chairmen is waiting no longer for voluntary agreement to release Trump’s past tax returns. “The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee asked the IRS on Wednesday for six years of President Trump’s personal and business tax returns, a request with which the president immediately said he was not inclined to comply.” There is little question but that the chairman can get the documents “because of a 1924 law that gives the chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee broad powers to request and receive the tax returns of any American.”

It’s not clear on what grounds Trump will object. “I’m being audited” is problematic if true. (If not, he had better not say so in a court filing.) As my colleague Harry Litman has pointed out, only a letter from the committee is required. No excuses, including an alleged audit, are available under the applicable law. (Moreover, the audit excuse raises the question as to why the IRS, if Trump’s claim is true, is taking years to audit his returns. I mean, surely Trump would object to such “harassment,” right?)

Meanwhile, the House Oversight and Reform Committee is also going to Trump’s accounting firm with a subpoena for 10 years of financial records. (The firm asked for a subpoena presumably so that it can tell its client it had no choice.) No, there is no accountant-client privilege under New York or federal law akin to an attorney-client privilege, so the committee is very likely to get what it wants.

The Oversight Committee will also be requiring the appearance of Carl Kline, the political appointee who overruled career officials in pushing through security clearances including, we have learned, one for Jared Kushner despite concerns about “foreign influence, outside business interests and personal conduct, according to a document released by the committee,” The Post reports.

In sum, the administration’s utter lack of transparency, rule-bending and avoidance (e.g. issuing a security clearance for Kushner) and replete conflicts of interest necessitate a robust response from the House, which appears to be willing to stand up to Trump.

And what about the presidential candidates?

For starters, it would be mighty embarrassing — especially for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who promised to release his tax returns more than a month ago — if we learned what was in Trump’s tax returns before we learned what was in his potential challengers’ returns. (Maybe Ways and Means could subpoena them, too, in the name of fairness.) It’s embarrassing that so few (Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee are among the exceptions) have demonstrated the transparency they demand of Trump.

Second, they should be promising to avoid the stonewalling this president has employed. They should pledge to require, if elected, all executive branch employees to release taxes and to report to Congress any security clearances that are granted over the objections from career professionals. They should place their own holdings in a true blind trust as soon as they win the nomination and, if elected, sign legislation obligating their successors to do the same. They should also work with Congress to set up a legislative protocol for reporting emoluments to Congress, granting Congress access to data necessary to oversee emoluments and requiring prompt approval of emoluments (if not, they must be returned within a short time frame).

The House is fully justified in issuing its subpoenas, but frankly, I’m underwhelmed with the conduct of those who want to replace Trump. If they don’t set the standard now and lay out their commitments to transparency and elimination of conflicts of interest, voter might understandably be concerned that their ethical standards might not be much higher than Trump’s.


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