Democrats have not lacked energy in what they’ve come to call the “resistance” to President Trump. They forced prolonged debate on many Trump cabinet nominees, coming within a vote of defeating Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and holding all 48 Democrats together on several party-line confirmation votes. Beyond the Beltway, huge crowds took to the streets on Jan. 21, and since then big crowds have amassed at GOP town hall meetings to demand representatives retain Obamacare, investigate the president and his national security adviser for Russian ties and address the array of conflicts of interest Trump perpetuates by refusing to sell his businesses. Nevertheless, as one House aide put it, “You can’t swing at everything.”
The plethora of outrages and Trump’s uncanny ability to dominate news cycle after news cycle continue to distress Democrats. Which issues do they focus on? How do they wrest the spotlight away from Trump? Do they go after all Republicans or focus on Trump, who on some counts angers Republicans as much as Democrats?
Lawmakers and activists outside Congress also have struggled with a thematic contradiction. On one hand, they see Trump as a threat to democratic norms, not just the Obama legacy. On the other hand, they (and the rest of the country) see the White House team as farcically inept. So is Trump a devious plotter who must be tackled each time he flinches his political muscles, or a figure to be ridiculed and who can be relied upon to self-destruct? The answer increasingly seems to be: both.
Trump’s campaign thrived on chaotic, constant action. Insult her. Attack a judge. Vilify the media. Berate other Republicans. Make outrageous policy pronouncements, and then contradict them the next day. Talk economic hooey and blow the dog whistle on race and xenophobia. We saw how that sucked up the political oxygen, entranced the media and gave a grouchy electorate the national temper tantrum they’d been waiting to unleash. But in government that same approach sows doubt and uncertainty about democracy itself. His claim of fraud undermines the electoral system. His incompetent, constantly bickering staff and his narcissistic indulgences destroy the majesty of the office. His careening foreign policy declarations (One-,China policy is done! No it is back on!) undermine our allies’ faith in the United States and create friction between countries that rarely quarrel. (Australia?!) No wonder Vladimir Putin loves this guy.
Trump is creating pervasive doubt, dysfunction and drama — all of which make the country less a leader of the Free World than the thorn in the side of the Free World. Trump’s cannot move his agenda ahead, but he can destabilize the country to a degree Putin never imagined possible. When the country does not know if its president and national security adviser are compromised by Russian ties or whether Trump is an inveterate liar or downright nuts, the United States cannot stand tall on the world stage. When he fights with close allies, other historic friends feel they must fend for themselves. While Trump throws sand in the gears of American democracy, the West becomes even more vulnerable to rogue states (Russia, China, Iran, etc.), which threaten to unravel the liberal international order. In short, Trump-induced chaos is the threat to the United States and the West.
In response, Democrats and worried Republicans in Congress can pursue a couple avenues. First, they can create veto-proof majorities for initiatives such as Russian sanctions and military and intelligence rebuilding in defense of Western democracies. Second, they can insist on investigation after investigation. House and Senate intelligence committees supposedly have begun their investigation of Russian connections to the Trump campaign. On Friday, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) demanded in a letter to the FBI a briefing on Flynn’s alleged conversations with the Russians. She wrote, “General Flynn may have struck an agreement or implied future cooperation with Russia and President Vladimir Putin regarding sanctions relief or some form of preferential treatment.”
And then there is a wily gambit Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) launched last week. The Post reported that Nadler “filed a ‘resolution of inquiry’ Thursday, a relatively obscure parliamentary tactic used to force presidents and executive-branch agencies to share records with Congress. Under House practice, such a resolution must be debated and acted upon in committee or else it can be discharged to the House floor for consideration.” Essentially this is akin to a mammoth discovery request one would use in litigation:
Nadler’s resolution asks Attorney General Jeff Sessions to provide “copies of any document, record, memo, correspondence, or other communication of the Department of Justice” that pertains to any “criminal or counterintelligence investigation” into Trump, his White House team or certain campaign associates; any investment made by a foreign power or agent thereof in Trump’s businesses; Trump’s plans to distance himself from his business empire; and any Trump-related examination of federal conflict of interest laws or the emoluments clause of the Constitution. . . .
Besides Trump, the resolution asks for records from any investigation targeting national security adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, oil industry consultant and former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, political operative Roger Stone, or “any employee of the Executive Office of the President.” All four men have come under scrutiny over alleged ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The process is disarmingly simple. The resolution must be referred to a committee. If it is not debated and voted upon within 14 days, it goes to the House floor for debate and vote. Now, Republicans can shut the resolution down by party-line votes in committee or on the floor, but Democrats get to air their demands — and force Republicans to take votes that will be seen as enabling Trump, Flynn and others to cover up their misconduct. Moreover, Democrats in every committee can do this throughout Trump’s term, highlighting specific issues and forcing embarrassing debate in the House.
“The fact is, Republicans can no longer ignore the issues staring them in the face. It is one thing to not respond to calls for hearings and investigations. It is another to be forced to publicly defend the actions of a President which are unethical, illegal, and a grave danger to American interests and national security,” Nadler told Right Turn in a statement provided by his office. “This is where the rubber hits the road. Republicans must start making a choice between Trump’s ethical and national security breaches versus the values they’ve sworn to uphold.”
Taking on Trump’s chaos through surgically precise use of the rules of the House may prove metaphorically satisfying. Resist the erosion of democratic norms with democratic rules. Resist the Trump media blitz with required debate on issues he doesn’t want to talk about. Resist Republicans effort to escape blame by tying them to Trump’s malfeasance. Nadler’s tactic might not be the only solution to Democratic woes, but he may have found a critical tool in resisting Trump and returning us to rational, democratic governance.