Instead of Oversight, This Congress Believes in Under-Sight
Omarosa saga reminds us that no Trump offense is so big that the GOP can’t ignore it
OPINION — In “Dr. Strangelove,” Stanley Kubrick’s scabrously funny 1964 sendup of nuclear war, a fanatical anti-Communist general starts pummeling the Russian ambassador for taking photographs in the inner sanctum of the Pentagon. The hapless president breaks up the scuffle by saying in an outraged tone, “Gentlemen. You can’t fight in here. This is the War Room!”
If only Kubrick were still around to do justice to Omarosa Manigault Newman taping her own firing by John Kelly in the White House Situation Room. Even the fanatical Gen. Jack D. Ripper couldn’t match the deranged fury of Donald Trump’s Tuesday tweet calling Omarosa “a crazed, crying lowlife” and viciously likening her to a “dog.”
In Trump’s telling, he magnanimously gave Omarosa (the villain of the first season of “The Apprentice”) a “break” by giving her a senior, if comically ill-defined, job at the White House. Forgotten was the pesky detail that the generous taxpayers (and not Trump personally) were funding her $180,000-a-year salary. That income, by the way, put Omarosa in the upper 5 percent of all Americans.
Welcome to Trumpworld
The Omarosa saga raises two important questions that, in normal times, might be of interest to Congress.
The first line of Trumpian defense has been to trumpet that the book-hawking Omarosa has violated a nondisclosure agreement. In fact, the Trump campaign on Tuesday demanded arbitration over her purported breaching of a 2016 confidentiality deal.
But senior Trump aide and TV apologist Kellyanne Conway claimed in an ABC interview that such nondisclosure agreements were the coin of the realm in the White House: “We’ve all signed them in the West Wing. … And why wouldn’t we?”
Watch: 5 Reasons Why Congress Is Broken
Well, for starters, because White House aides are public employees and not indentured servants of Donald J. Trump. The Washington Post also reported that in early 2017 White House counsel Donald McGahn (also a public employee) took the lead in pressing aides to sign these legally dubious confidentiality deals.
In theory, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley — an outspoken champion of protecting governmental whistleblowers — should be raging about how these White House nondisclosure pacts undermine the public’s right to know. Even though the Post’s Ruth Marcus revealed the existence of West Wing my-lips-are-sealed contracts in March, Grassley appears only interested in nondisclosure agreements when they relate to Robert Mueller.
Although Omarosa secretly taping a conversation in the Situation Room may have been a security violation in itself, it serves as a reminder of how cavalier the entire White House (from Trump on down) has been in handling classified information.
As Politico reported in May, Trump’s cell phones lack sophisticated eavesdropping-protection features and often are used far longer that security concerns dictate. And presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner operated for more than a year without a permanent top-secret security clearance.
Normally, this would be the moment to point out the hypocrisy of Trump, who ran for president to the soundtrack of chants of “Lock her up” about Hillary Clinton’s email server.
But hypocrisy, as La Rochefoucauld noted in a 17th-century maxim, is the homage that vice pays to virtue. The problem is that Trump — with a sense of entitlement that Louis XIV might envy — refuses to even acknowledge a world where virtue exists, let alone feel a twinge of momentary guilt over his own hypocrisy.
Watch: Sanders Defends Trump’s Omarosa Tweets
Meanwhile, on the Hill …
Congress, of course, could play a major role in monitoring how the executive branch handles security and classified information. In fact, one dimly recalls a House select committee producing an 800-page report on Benghazi that found no wrongdoing in the 2012 deaths of four Americans (including an ambassador) in Libya.
But not this Congress when it comes to monitoring this president.
The truth is that instead of practicing oversight, this Republican Congress specializes in under-sight. No offense by Trump and his henchmen is so big that it can’t be ignored by GOP committee chairmen.
Even Trump’s top-guys-only meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki only briefly aroused the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its retiring chairman, Bob Corker. Yes, there was a single combative hearing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in which Corker grumbled, “I notice that you are not responding to what I’m saying.”
The Trump administration, though, did find a direct way to respond this week with a signing statement attached to the Defense authorization bill. Trump contended that he would not be bound by language banning any recognition of Russia’s illegal takeover of Crimea. It doesn’t take much imagining to wonder what Trump may have promised Putin in Helsinki on the future of Ukraine.
With 12 weeks until the midterm elections, it is easy to get caught up in campaign issues ranging from the economy to Obamacare to the future of the Supreme Court. But there is one political topic that dwarfs everything else on the ballot — and that is the willingness of Congress in 2019 to assert its constitutional powers against a reckless, lawless, vicious and incompetent president.
The issue is not the Republicans’ political right to cut taxes, slash regulations and appoint qualified conservative judges. The GOP Congress could have done all that, while still standing up to Trump over all the ways that he has trampled the norms of democracy.
Instead, congressional Republicans — with appallingly few exceptions — became Trump’s willing enablers. And that, more than anything, makes these the most important off-year congressional elections in my lifetime or yours.
Walter Shapiro, a Roll Call columnist since 2015, has covered the last 10 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.