It started way back on Sept. 27, 2017, with a Washington Post report exposing how Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt “took charter, military flights that cost taxpayers more than $58,000.”
More than nine months later, and after numerous ethical controversies involving mismanagement of taxpayer dollars, financial relationships with lobbyists and abuse of government staff, Pruitt finally resigned.
Pruitt’s resignation could be a sign of things to come, should Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives in November.
Earlier this week, Axios’ Mike Allen reported on how alumni of the George W. Bush administration “formed a secret “Oh Sh@# Group” to prepare for the Democratic takeover of 2006. They understood that Democratic rule meant Democrats would have subpoena power, and that “oversight committees [were] going to bombard” the administration with “calls for testimony and documents” that would include “your spending, your email, your calendars, your notes.”
In March, I wrote that “a Democratic House majority, and specifically the Oversight committee, will be capable of generating a storm that threatens the future of the Trump presidency.”
Oversight committee Democrats, led by ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), have already proven very effective, even in the minority without deposition or subpoena authority. The same day Pruitt resigned, Cummings sent a letter to the EPA’s inspector general, informing him of evidence the committee had obtained about a dinner Pruitt had in Rome with a cardinal who’d been charged with sexual assault. The meeting had been suspiciously removed from Pruitt’s public schedule. Cummings also obtained additional evidence of Pruitt “routinely asking senior EPA staff to help his family members ― including his wife and his daughter ― while they were on EPA premises during official work hours. These requests included helping his wife find employment as a political fundraiser and helping his daughter obtain a White House internship and a legal fellowship.”
Imagine how much sooner Cummings and his oversight Democrats could have exposed Pruitt’s many flagrant abuses if they’d had the tools of the majority at their disposal. That’s something that should give the Trump administration a lot of pause and cause for concern.
Last September, reports surfaced about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s use of chartered aircraft at taxpayer expense, including a flight on a private plane owned by oil and gas executives. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took eight trips on military aircraft that totaled nearly $1 million at taxpayer expense, including a trip to Miami that cost more than $40,000. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson blamed his wife for the purchase of a $31,000 dining room set, which raises questions about the role his wife is playing making decisions about the allocation of taxpayer dollars.
During my years working at the oversight committee (2009-2013), we were always fond of the expression “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up that gets them.”
Last fall, oversight Democrats initiated an investigation related to the “reassignment of numerous Senior Executive Service (SES) employees and career civil servants within the Department of the Interior... in alleged retaliation for blowing the whistle on activities within the Department.”
The lack of oversight from the Republican majority has enabled the Trump administration to follow its worst instincts. Without any oversight or accountability, flagrant abuses and clear ethical violations have gone unchecked. The result is a culture of corruption spreading like a disease throughout the federal government.
Should the Democrats retake a majority in the House, even those closest to Trump in the West Wing will not be safe from the scrutiny and power of Congress.
Last October, Cummings called on the current oversight committee chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), to subpoena the White House for documents related to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s use of private email accounts. In March, Cummings called on Gowdy to hold an emergency hearing related to Kushner’s security clearance status and to subpoena him to appear and testify. These requests may not have gone anywhere yet, but if Democrats win in November, you can bet that Jared and Ivanka will be among the first to be served with subpoenas.
The best chance President Trump has to minimize the damage is to take some of this low-hanging fruit out of play before Democrats are armed with the tools of the majority. If Trump starts to believe that Congress could flip, Scott Pruitt won’t be the only member of Trump’s team to resign.
Kurt Bardella is a HuffPost columnist. He is a former spokesman and senior adviser for former House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) and Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter: @kurtbardella