On May 1, House Judiciary Committee leaders, led by Antitrust Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline, D-R.I., threatened to subpoena Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos as part of the House's investigation into big tech companies. On Monday, Bezos signaled his willingness to appear at a hearing alongside other major tech chief executives. The question I have for House Democrats is: How will this hearing help defeat President Donald Trump in November?
Sure, a hearing with Bezos will garner headlines and make for a compelling photo opportunity, but right now such headlines feel like a complete waste of time, energy and resources. The fact that this is perhaps the only oversight investigation the Trump administration supports should be enough to give Cicilline and House Democrats pause.
This poorly thought-out strategy is made urgently clear by the recent revelations included in John Bolton's upcoming memoir.
This poorly thought-out strategy is made urgently clear by the recent revelations in former national security adviser John Bolton's upcoming memoir, parts of which leaked in The New York Times and The Washington Post on Wednesday. According to reports, Bolton was shocked that House Democrats didn't push harder to investigate other potentially impeachable offenses besides the Ukraine scandal. (The House did ask Bolton to testify, which he declined, but it didn't try to force him via subpoena.)
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When Republicans controlled the House, they used their investigative powers to target the Democratic Party's nominee for president, Hillary Clinton, going so far as to create a select committee to investigate her in the hope that it would derail her campaign and motivate Republican voters. It worked. "Hillary's emails" and "lock her up" became familiar refrains on the Trump campaign trail. Following the lead of 2016 House Republicans, Senate Republicans are using their majority in 2020 to launch investigations and issue subpoenas targeting Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, this year's Democratic nominee.
Even now, Republicans in Congress are not hesitating to use the levers of power to politicize Trump's adversaries. They have no qualms about using their oversight authority to conduct taxpayer-funded witch hunts in the hope that just the mere appearance of impropriety is enough to derail the Biden campaign.
So why aren't Democrats willing to fight fire with fire?
Is it because they're taking the high road? Are they afraid that Trump and Republicans will accuse them of allowing politics to direct their agenda? If that's the case — guess what? That's going to happen anyway. Listen, there are plenty of reasons Congress should be investigating big tech companies — especially social media companies like Facebook and the role those platforms will play in the coming election. But I'm unsure what putting Jeff Bezos front and center at a hearing really achieves at this moment in time. Especially when there are so many other areas of oversight that require immediate attention.
Ever since they advanced impeachment to the Senate, House Democrats have been M.I.A. The fact that Bolton has done an interview with ABC News before testifying to Congress about his allegations of corruption in the Trump White House illustrates how hesitant Democrats have been about pursuing open threads of oversight. Meanwhile, the corruptive practices of the Trump presidency have become more widespread and blatant. The Democrats' preferred tactic of sending letters and requests for information to the administration — requests that are routinely ignored — just isn't working.
It has become standard operating procedure for the Trump administration to blatantly ignore the oversight requests of the Democratic-controlled House. Given that reality, the only course of action congressional Democrats have at their disposal right now is to deploy the bully pulpit. And it's not like Democrats need to look very hard or far to find topics and subjects for public hearings.
At a time when the coronavirus death toll in the United States has surpassed 115,000, the president is "gifting" hundreds of ventilators to Russia while also agreeing to purchase ventilators from President Vladimir Putin from a subsidiary of a Russian company under U.S. sanctions.
In April and May, the president went on an unprecedented firing spree of inspectors general. Each one has a story worth telling in a public hearing.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is refusing to disclose to Congress who received $600 billion in taxpayer bailouts from the coronavirus aid program.
Dozens of former Defense Department officials have spoken out against Trump's use of military force against the millions of Americans exercising their protected right to freedom of speech, assembly and protest. How hard would it be to schedule a series of hearings featuring those voices? Trump's former Defense Secretary James Mattis warned that the president is a "threat to the Constitution" — how have Democrats not moved to have him testify publicly about his warning?
And now we have the (several) new allegations made by Bolton.
We know the subpoena pen still works. On Tuesday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., announced that he had issued two subpoenas for two Justice Department whistleblowers to testify at a hearing next week about "unprecedented politicization" of the Justice Department under the watch of Attorney General William Barr. This could be a very strong and impactful hearing that speaks to the very heart of the corruptive virus infecting the federal government. You know what would overshadow it? A hearing with Jeff Bezos.
There will be plenty of time after November to pursue other (very worthy) things. But until then, Democrats need to keep their eye on the ball. The bottom line is that every single minute spent on something other than defeating Donald Trump is a minute spent helping him stay in power.