Hopes for Deus Ex Mueller Dashed, Democrats Will Need to Be Authors of this Story
RDP Newsletter 7
Although many clearly hoped otherwise, it was always unlikely that Mueller’s investigation would prove a silver bullet capable of taking down this President without Congress needing to exert itself. The scope of the Mueller probe was always narrow, capturing only the slightest fraction of Trump’s potential wrongdoing. There are tens, if not hundreds, of allegations against this President that have nothing to do with Russian election interference and for which there is a mountain of evidence laying out in the open.
Of course, this does not mean that the Mueller investigation was either unimportant or unnecessary. Indeed, we must fight to have the Special Counsel’s full findings (not just his report on prosecutorial decisions) made public because it is clear from Mueller’s court filings that he uncovered a great deal of damning information.
It does mean, however, that Democrats should never have allowed deference to Mueller’s investigation to take the wind out of their oversight sails. While we have previously spoken positively of some oversight developments in recent months, we have maintained that most House committees have failed to exhibit energy commensurate with the scale of the Trump Administration’s corruption. With the Mueller report submitted, they have no more excuses. We hope that means that they will rise to the occasion.
Housekeeping: RDP finally has an official twitter account! Follow us @revolvingdoorDC if you have not already.
On March 14, the Senate confirmed five nominees to two independent agencies, making them the first independent agency nominees to be confirmed this Congress. This restored a quorum to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC) and filled out the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) which is now fully staffed. While this represents welcome progress, the overall state of independent agency nominations remains abysmal.
In a blog post published this week, we draw attention to the problem’s severity, drawing on the information that we have collected in our Independent Federal Agency Monitor. There are 83 seats (out of 179 total) that are either expired or vacant but there are only 29 pending nominations to fill those spots. Despite near parity in the political balance of seats requiring nominations, the President is clearly advancing nominations for Republican seats more quickly than for Democratic seats, having put forward 18 nominations for the former and only 9 for the latter.
Look no further than Allison Lee’s perpetually just-around-the-corner nomination to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to understand the implications of the President’s partisan obstructionism (and, it must be said, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s acquiescence to Trump’s rejection of norms). Schumer submitted Lee’s name late last summer, but Trump has yet to follow through. That is leading a group of corporate lawyers to very publicly declare victory in anticipation of weaker enforcement and lower penalties from this SEC. Disturbingly, they seem to be operating under the assumption that nothing about the SEC’s political balance will change in the foreseeable future. We worry that unless Senate Democrats escalate their response to this outrageous obstructionism, they may be right.
News early last week that the two Democratic members of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission joined in the board’s calls for the Federal Reserve to loosen leverage rules on banks serves as an important reminder that fighting for minority nominations is not enough. We must also affirmatively fight to get advocates for the public interest in these positions.
By placing too much faith in Mueller’s narrow investigation, Democrats put themselves in a difficult spot when the Special Counsel (somewhat inevitably) failed to save the day, even as his work was valuable in its own right. Democrats would undoubtedly be in a stronger position had they already begun to develop their own narrative on Trump’s corruption through coordinated and aggressive oversight of this administration.
Yet the House’s deference to the Special Counsel’s investigation need not be a fatal mistake. The American people are still hungry for accountability. We join Greg Sargent in arguing that in a post-Mueller world, Democrats must recognize that they are called to fulfill the public’s desire for accountability.
They should start this new era by opening an impeachment inquiry. An open inquiry would not commit Congress to so much as a single vote on impeachment itself. It would, however, demonstrate to the general public that Democrats’ appreciate the gravity of this situation. As we have observed previously, shying away from impeachment while simultaneously decrying this administration’s extraordinary corruption as dangerous to the rule of law has undercut the power of their claims. If Democrats mean what they say about Trump lawlessly threatening the country, shouldn’t their actions be proportionate to the danger rather than nakedly politically-based (mis)calculations? Ironically, trimming their own sails has done nothing to forestall a right wing “oversight overreach” narrative--despite the near complete absence of congressional subpoenas thus far. Now is the time to view public opinion as malleable rather than fixed, abandon vacillation and plow forward with aggressive oversight.
It is only by Congress tying together everything from Trump Tower Moscow and Mar-a-Lago expenses incurred by the Secret Service to the Trump Administration’s fealty to Blackstone, Boeing, and for profit higher education grifters within a single investigation that the scope and impact of Trump’s corruption can be made intelligible to the public.
Opening impeachment proceedings examining systemic corruption would also help to repair some of the damage that Democrats have already inflicted on the credibility of their threats. House Democrats’ hesitation in issuing threatened subpoenas has undoubtedly contributed to this administration’s brazenness in the face of Congress’ requests. That includes Attorney General Barr’s intention to ignore Rep. Nadler’s April 2 deadline for sharing Mueller’s “report.”
One additional often overlooked point: Ross Garber, a leading expert on impeachment, has highlighted how Democrats are more likely to prevail in the courts against the administration’s claims of executive privilege if they occur within a framework of an impeachment process.
Spotlight: Rep. Maxine Waters is one Chair who has left no questions about the credibility of her threats. Although she, like most other chairs, has not yet issued a subpoena, she has consistently demonstrated her commitment to pursuing the agenda that she laid out in a quasi-inaugural speech in January. The demonstrable credibility of her promises has produced tangible results, including encouraging the subjects of her probes, like Deutsche Bank, to cooperate willingly with ongoing investigations. Her committee’s oversight was also undoubtedly a major factor in Wells Fargo CEO Tim Sloan’s decision to step down, effective immediately. Although not a cure all for Wells Fargo’s problems, that nonetheless represents an important victory.
Hall of Shame: In case you were wondering, we are also getting tired of putting Rep. Richard Neal in this slot. It would be preferable if he requested the President’s tax returns so that we could all move on. Yet, here we are. The need for this request has only gotten more urgent with the end of the Mueller investigation. It is now clear that Neal is the only one who can get the information about the President’s financial ties and fraudulent behavior that we have all been waiting for. Unfortunately, this has done nothing to accelerate Neal’s sluggish and infuriatingly opaque timeline. Neal’s delay is unambiguously an unearned gift to Trump.
Executive Branch Personnel
While Mueller may not have found sufficient admissible evidence for criminal conspiracy, that should not distract from the other credible allegations against Trump and members of his administration that are deserving of lawmakers’ attention. To underline the sheer abundance of these scandals, we have chosen a modest sampling from the past two weeks:
Corruption has real implications for people’s safety, something that the Boeing scandal has helped to drive home. Emails published by ProPublica reveal that acting director of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Daniel Elwell, kept in close contact with the airline industry lobbyists with whom he once worked. Any investigation into the FAA and Boeing must seek not only to establish the legality of Elwell’s communications but also to understand how his relationships with these industry insiders affected his regulatory decision-making.
The Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross, has refused to appear before the Senate Commerce Committee for a routine hearing on his department’s proposed budget. Aside from demonstrating a remarkable disrespect for congressional authority, Ross’s decision is most disturbing because it is entirely rational. In hearings thus far, he has shown himself unable to avoid perjury. This should not be accepted as normal, nor should he be allowed to get away with it.
On Friday, Politico reported that CMS administrator Seema Verma (the official who oversees Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare) funneled millions of dollars into contracts with GOP-aligned communications consultants, choosing to use their services over those of the career civil servants in the agency’s communications department. This is a highly suspicious use of taxpayer money and a potential violation of federal contracting rules.
2020 (and Potentially 2021)
In a Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee hearing on the nomination of Heath Tarbert to the CFTC that took place earlier this month, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand became the first 2020 candidate this year to draw attention to the ongoing staffing crisis at many independent agencies, including the SEC. It is important that all Democratic Senators, presidential candidates or not, give more attention to this issue. Given the similarities, however, between the responsibility of Senators in the minority party to put forward nominations for the independent agencies, and the responsibility of the President to choose nominees for these boards, we were particularly heartened to see Sen. Gillibrand shedding a light on the problem.
In contrast, we were concerned to hear that former Obama fundraiser, and vulture hedge fund owner, Mark Gallogly is reportedly planning to back newly-minted presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke. Gallogly’s firm, Centerbridge Partners, is invested in Puerto Rican debt and part of the cabal of funds working to extract value from the island by pressuring the government to impose ever harsher austerity measures on its already reeling populace. There is perhaps no better example of an ethos of “profit over people” than these vulture funds’ behavior in Puerto Rico. That Gallogly could have influence over Beto, or even worse, end up in a President O’Rourke’s administration, should be a major cause for concern.
Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to this month:
Boeing debacle shows need to investigate Trump-era corruption
Defeated by AOC, Crowley Now Pushes Trump’s Trade Deal for K Street
RDP Requests Record of Contracts between BlackRock and Key Federal Agencies
The Overlooked Executive Branch Scandal of the Trump Era -- Independent Agencies
Congress’s New Progressives Take On the Banks
Fannie-Freddie reform could rewrite a familiar Washington script
Democrats Might Not Get Their Hands On Trump’s Taxes Before November 2020
Democrat’s Go-Slow Pace on Trump’s Taxes Irks Party Progressives
Politico Morning Tax 3/25/19
Old-school legislator 'Richie' Neal in the spotlight for Trump tax returns investigation
Corruption Crusaders Wish Democrats Would Just Expose Trump's Tax Returns Already
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Revolving Door Project is a project of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.