I’ll begin by quoting Violet Fane, a 19th-century British poet: “All hoped-for things will come to you / Who have the strength to watch and wait.”
How right she was. We summoned the strength to watch and wait, and we got what we hoped for. In the words of Democratic congressman Jerrold Nadler, the new chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, “The time for accountability has arrived.”
Today marks the end of all-Republican rule in Washington. Thanks to the tallest blue wave since 1974, thanks to a winning nationwide margin of 8.6 percent (the widest margin ever recorded in House races), the 435-member House is now solidly Democratic and the GOP contingent has withered to 199. Donald Trump is still free to rant incoherently at Cabinet meetings, but the remnant of his MAGA legislative agenda is dead on arrival at Nancy Pelosi’s doorstep.
Here’s what accountability looks like in practice:
Nadler has subpoena power, the clout to probe the sketchy appointment of Trump toady Matthew Whitaker as acting attorney general, and the power to launch impeachment hearings — if or when they are warranted.
Adam Schiff, the new Intelligence chairman, says he wants to address “the issue of whether the Russians were laundering money through the Trump Organization. This is leverage that they possess over the president of the United States.”
Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the new Energy and Commerce chairman, vows “robust oversight of the Trump administration’s ongoing actions to sabotage our health care system, exacerbate climate change, and weaken consumer protections.”
Elijah Cummings, the new Oversight and Government Reform chairman, plans to probe Trump’s family separation policy, and (among other things) the administration’s decision to punish some prominent critics by pulling their security clearances.
Richard Neal, the new chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means committee, will seek Trump’s tax returns, to determine whether his ongoing business interests have triggered conflicts of interest that potentially violate the constitutional ban against monetizing a federal office.
And Pelosi has hired Douglas Letter, a 40-year Justice Department veteran and senior litigator, to serve as the House’s general counsel. Letter left Justice last March, citing Trump’s attacks on the integrity of the institution: “One obviously has to be concerned about the Justice Department and the future of the Justice Department.” And in a guest column last September he warned that “if the president makes the dangerous and foolish decision to keep (Robert) Mueller’s work from the American people, outrage should be directed not at legal doctrines involving executive privilege, but at a president who will have made a most regrettable decision.” Legal scholars say that Letter’s House hiring is “a very big deal.”
All this has happened because the national electorate – by a spread of nearly 10 million votes, especially from Republican-leaning women in normally red suburbs — made it clear in November that it wanted checks and balances. Trump no longer owns the narrative in Washington. House Democrats now have the megaphone to speak on behalf of the solid American majority — 58 percent — that opposes Trump’s preposterous wall.
In other words, anyone at this point who still thinks voting doesn’t matter is too dumb for Trump University.
None of this guarantees nirvana, of course. Trump’s legal eagles will likely challenge the House subpoenas in court, or simply defy them. Fox News, using Pelosi’s troops as a foil, will simply crank up its Trumpist agitprop. Democrats will have their own intramural policy fights, and their cacophony of voices on the presidential campaign trail will complicate the quest for a unified party message.
With respect to the current government shutdown, House Democrats can’t magically break the stalemate, not with Senate leader Mitch McConnell carrying water for Trump, insisting on wall money as the price for ending the shutdown — despite the fact that Senate Republicans, just weeks ago, signed off on a plan to avert a shutdown with no wall money. And how do you do business with a fake president who lives in a fantasy world? Pelosi tells NBC News: “When you’re negotiating with someone, you have to know — you stipulate to some fact. It’s hard to do that with the president, because he resists science, evidence, data, truth … It’s hard to pin the president down on the facts.”
But politically, House Democrats have the upper hand. Confronting Trump is the mainstream American position. Every time Trump and McConnell play solely to the Trumpist Republican base, they cede the middle of the electorate and underscore the case for accountability. What we will witness in 2019 will not be pretty, and the strength of our democracy will likely be tested as never before. But nobody has framed the stakes better than Al Franken.
You may remember Al Franken. If you believe that his past juvenile actions disqualify him from ever speaking out again, don’t read any further. But if you believe (as I do) that his words still have worth, here’s his take on where we are today, on the cusp of this new accountability era:
“Our government is in chaos. And Donald Trump can’t fix it … But Congress can. Democrats don’t need to waste our time getting angry every time Trump says something stupid or mean. What we need to do is oversight, and a lot of it. We need to figure out exactly what this guy has broken — whether through malice or neglect or greed or sheer incompetence — and start fixing it before more people get hurt.
“And we need Republicans who knew they were putting a dangerously unqualified buffoon in the White House to either help us contain the damage or get the hell out of our way.”