Rigorous congressional oversight of the executive branch, including the Justice Department and FBI, is of great value to our democracy. Abject political abuse of that oversight system is of no value, but instead a threat.
Many aspects of the new select subcommittee that the House Republican majority created — headed by Rep. Jim Jordan and ominously called the “Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government” — are worthy of comment and concern in that regard, but let’s start with the irony.
For four years, Donald Trump systematically misused the federal government for his own political and personal gain, and Jordan and many of his colleagues stood by or affirmatively defended Trump’s actions. The list is long, and hopefully well-known to many. Trump directly interfered in prosecutions of his friends and allies, with his compliant attorneys general dropping charges and undercutting the sentencing recommendations of career prosecutors, and eventually abused the pardon power to ensure close allies like Michael Flynn, Roger Stone and Steve Bannon saw no consequences for criminal conduct. He explicitly encouraged investigations of perceived enemies and fired inspectors general whom he perceived to be a threat. He steered federal business to his hotels and resorts, turning the presidency into a personal profit-making enterprise.
Even the Department of Interior under Trump produced propaganda videos promoting the president and allowed him to use national park land for political events. His administration was characterized by repeat and replete violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits most federal officials from using their official positions for politics, and he effectively encouraged those violations by making clear he would not follow recommendations of disciplinary action for senior administration officials who violated that law. And of course Trump ultimately tried to use federal agencies and resources to keep himself in power after he lost a free and fair election, pushing the Department of Justice to endorse bogus claims of election fraud and considering ordering the military to seize voting machines.
Trump’s term as president was the very model of weaponization of the federal government. It exposed vulnerabilities in our system that demand inquiry, and from which we can draw lessons to safeguard the rule of law and our democratic institutions. But the new House subcommittee isn’t going to be investigating any of that.
Instead, what Jordan’s new select subcommittee will in fact be investigating, apparently, are those in the federal government who have been investigating that very weaponization of government under Trump. It’s exhausting to contemplate, and it’s a prime example of the classic Trumpian tactic of accusing your perceived enemies of doing exactly the thing that you are actually doing. We can’t allow this to be accepted as an honest or upright enterprise.
Jordan, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, and other House Republicans argue that conservatives from Trump on down have been subjected to a double standard by the federal government and particularly by law enforcement. This is, of course, nonsense.
Federal law enforcement has approached the rampant illegality of the Trump administration with tremendous restraint. Despite a plethora of credible allegations of criminal conduct by Trump and those around him, the many different instances of illegality during Trump’s presidency prior to efforts to overturn the 2020 election have been subject to little investigation and few charges. When there was finally an armed insurrection incited by Trump to stop the peaceful transition of power in the United States–a historically shocking and dangerous event in this country’s story–an investigation into the events leading up to and on that day started slowly and is only now approaching a level proportionate with the severity of the conduct at issue.
What Rep. Jordan’s new select subcommittee will in fact be investigating, apparently, are those in the federal government who have been investigating that very weaponization of government under Trump.
The real reason for “investigating” the investigations into efforts to overturn the election and of Trump-era abuses is to protect Donald Trump and his allies by effectively kneecapping those seeking to finally ensure accountability for these historic abuses. Of course, Jordan himself stands to benefit from these efforts; he is a staunch Trump ally who was himself referred by the January 6 Committee to the House Ethics Committee for refusing to cooperate with its investigation for which he was a potential direct witness. Rep. Scott Perry, another staunch Trump ally in the House who was even more involved in efforts to overturn the election and the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation, has said that he would not recuse from oversight of those same investigations despite the obvious conflict of interest.
So the House select subcommittee is being set up to ignore Trump’s actual systematic weaponization of the federal government and examine, in what will surely be sensational terms, entirely appropriate federal conduct that is not weaponization at all. But beyond that, the House also appears poised to do some weaponizing of its own.
Congressional oversight, in general, scrupulously refrains from interfering with ongoing criminal investigations. This subcommittee, though, has been expressly authorized in its mandate to look into “ongoing criminal investigations.” Congress publicly and privately opening up ongoing investigations can undercut those investigations by tipping off targets, discouraging witnesses, making it harder to obtain evidence, and infecting a potential jury pool with bias, among other possible effects. Doing so intentionally and in a systematic way is dangerous and looks a lot like interfering with the justice system for politics. Moreover, the Department of Justice is likely to refuse to provide much of the information requested, particularly since some requests might implicate grand jury secrecy and others would undercut law enforcement, leading to needless controversy and gridlock.
The new House of Representatives has also restarted a formerly discarded practice that allows Congress to target for cuts or for zeroing out the funding for specific agency programs and even the salaries of specific federal employees they don’t like. That’s about as weaponized as it gets.
It’s important to call out what is really going on here and keep calling it out as this misinformation effort proceeds. We have seen this in our nation’s history before. There is a real danger that, as this subcommittee continues about its assigned business for weeks and months and with the trappings of congressional power, the press and the American people will start to accept its premise and present this as a legitimate look into government excess. It is not; it is a smokescreen to protect those who actually weaponized the government. Those trying to keep the public informed have to say that, very clearly, every time this subcommittee does anything. Only then can we combat the real weaponization of government against our democratic system.