The day after the 2018 midterm elections, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell used the phrase “presidential harassment” to characterize the new Democratic House majority’s stated goal of prioritizing oversight. Whether he knew it or not, McConnell was handing President Donald J. Trump a rhetorical grenade.
Sure enough, setting the tone for what is sure to be a dramatic March, Trump tweeted this week that “Presidential Harassment by ‘crazed’ Democrats" was at the "highest level in the history of our country.” This “presidential harassment” refrain is becoming an increasingly popular slogan for Trump as he attempts to fend off a flurry of congressional subpoenas and investigations.
But putting aside how jarring it is to watch a man who has himself been repeatedly accused of harassment play this particular victim card, it is even stranger to watch Republicans in Congress defend the president’s efforts. After a decade of their own oversight activities, these Republicans know better. What Congress is doing is hardly harassment, but rather the exercise of a vital constitutional mandate.
What Congress is doing is hardly harassment, but rather the exercise of a vital constitutional mandate.
On March 4, the House Judiciary Committee issued 81 document requests as part of an investigation focusing on potential obstruction of justice, public corruption and abuses of power. On the same day, the chairmen of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Committee on Oversight and Reform wrote to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to request documents fromand interviews with personnel of the White House, the executive office of the president and the Department of State related to communications between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Responding to the House Judiciary Committee’s investigations, the House Oversight Committee’s ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, seemed to channel his inner Trump, tweeting, “C’mon @RepJerryNalder—at least pretend to be serious about fact finding…What a Kangaroo court.”
This is the same Jim Jordan who in 2012, while voting to hold then-Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, asked, “How can you ignore the facts when you don’t get the facts? That’s what this is all about.” The same Jim Jordan who in 2014 declared, while holding former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress, that “the only remedy we have to get to the truth is to use every tool at our disposal… the only route to the truth is through the House of Representatives.”
Indeed this is the standard that Republicans — like Jim Jordan — established during the presidency of Barack Obama, when they vigorously pursued every possible thread of waste, fraud abuse, and mismanagement. As someone who worked for Republicans at the House Oversight Committee and watched how they relished the role of government watchdog, it is sickening to watch them now do everything they can to protect Trump.
The investigative powers of Congress are rooted in the very foundation of our nation and can be traced back to the earliest days of our Republic. The very first major congressional investigation seems to have been launched in 1792, when the House established a committee “to call for such persons, papers, and records” to examine the defeat of an army unit in the Battle of the Wabash. Congress’ oversight powers were also used in the 1790s to scrutinize Alexander Hamilton’s management of the public debt, in the 19th century to investigate post-Civil War government contracts and throughout the 20th century to probe the infamous “Teapot Dome” bribery scandal.
In 1946, Congress passed and President Harry S. Truman signed into law the “Legislative Reorganization Act,” which strengthened congressional oversight and explicitly affirmed its mandate to conduct “continuous watchfulness” over the executive branch. And don't get me started on Watergate.
In 1861, British philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote, “the proper office of a representative assembly is to watch and control the government; to throw the light of publicity on its acts; to compel a full exposition and justification of all of them which any one considers questionable.” A century later, Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren similarly declared that “the power of Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process …It comprehends probes into departments of the Federal Government to expose corruption, inefficiency or waste.”
Trump has already proven he doesn’t have a particularly strong grasp on American history. But his bizarre pronouncement that “Presidential Harassment! It should never be allowed to happen again!” is once again completely ignorant of our nation’s history and the intentional designs of our system of checks and balances. As President Woodrow Wilson noted in 1885: “Quite as important as legislation is vigilant oversight of administration.”