Thursday 3 January 2019. Mark that date in your diaries. It could be the first day that the Trump administration, belatedly, begins to be held to account since coming to office almost two years ago.
The 116th Congress convenes from noon on 3 January – and it will be the Democrats in control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010. The new and diverse freshman class will be arriving on Capitol Hill with a spring in their step – the Blue Wave turned out to be closer to a Blue Tsunami. Last month, the Democrats pulled off the biggest midterm win in US history: a nine-million-vote margin of victory over the Republicans nationwide, plus the seizure of 40 GOP-held seats in the House.
They have a clear anti-Trump mandate. The spineless Republicans they’ll be replacing surrendered their powers to the White House from day one of this reckless and lawless presidency. Their approach to Congressional oversight of Trump could be summed up as “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”.
In January, this could all change. Greg Sargent, author of the bracing new book, An Uncivil War: Taking Back Our Democracy in an Age of Trumpian Disinformation and Thunderdome Politics, tells me: “If the new House Democratic majority handles its oversight authority skilfully, we may see a lot of attention given to many ugly and corrupt aspects of Trump’s presidency that have been largely hidden from view by the near-total GOP abdication on oversight.”
Sargent, who writes for the Washington Post, says he hopes the Democrats in Congress “focus very hard on the Trump administration’s governing fiascos”, including its abuses of power and naked corruption. The Russia investigation, he believes, is onlythe beginning. “Shining a light on the deep rot of bad faith at the core of everything from Trump’s cruel, failing immigration policies to sabotage of the Affordable Care Act will be critical, even if these things aren’t as media-friendly as, say, Trump’s Russia connection.”
Under the separation of powers principle, the president is supposed to share power with the legislature and the judiciary. With a Republican-dominated Supreme Court unlikely to restrain this particular president, however, there has perhaps never been a more important time in modern US history for Congress to provide a check on executive power. A wannabe tinpot dictator sits in the Oval Office, loudly calling for the imprisonment of his political opponents while delivering encomiums to foreign tyrants.
Can the soon-to-be Democratic chairs of key Congressional committees, armed with wide-ranging subpoena powers, rein him in? The incoming House intelligence committee chair, Adam Schiff – whom the president has dismissed as “Adam Schitt” on Twitter – has promised to drag Trump crony Matthew Whittaker in front of Congress to query his appointment as the acting attorney general. The incoming House oversight committee chair, Elijah Cummings, has said he wants to investigate whether Trump violated the emoluments clause of the US constitution, which is supposed to prevent a president from accepting foreign gifts or favours. And the incoming House judiciary committee chair, Jerrold Nadler, wants to get to the bottom of whether the president is guilty of obstruction of justice.
Is the thin-skinned Donald Trump prepared for any of this? I suspect not.
It will take more than cries of “fake news” to fend off these multiple investigations and inquiries. To borrow a line from the late David Broder, doyen of Washington political journalism, this new Congress could be defined by “revelation, not legislation”.
Remember: the 72-year-old Trump himself has never before been held to account for anything, professionally or personally. Think about how many times he simply declared bankruptcy in his business ventures, or stiffed his contractors, or settled out of court, or paid off his mistresses.
Take his murky finances. One of the phrases that came to define the Watergate controversy was “follow the money”. Where do House Democrats begin? How about Trump’s attempts to do business in Russia in the midst of the presidential campaign, as revealed by his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen in open court in November? Or his financial ties to Saudi Arabia? Or his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner’s deals with Israeli firms and Gulf princes? Or the “hush money” paid to Stormy Daniels, the porn star who claims to have had a brief affair with Trump? Might we, finally, even get to see the president’s tax returns?
Then there is impeachment. The presumptive speaker, Nancy Pelosi, the rather cautious leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, isn’t keen on impeaching this president – especially when her party lacks the required two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict him.
But if special counsel Robert Mueller – whose investigation into the ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government has already produced seven guilty pleas and more than 30 indictments – produces a final report next year that links the president himself to Moscow, Pelosi may find herself under huge pressure to act from her party’s base.
So, the best-case scenario for Trump next year? He’s dogged by Congressional committees and subpoenas and a series of explosive revelations about his finances and infidelities. He’s weakened and humiliated – but clings to office.
And the worst-case scenario?
The former reality TV star becomes only the third president in American history to be impeached by the House of Representatives.
Happy New Year, Mr President!
Mehdi Hasan is a writer and broadcaster based in Washington, DC
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special