Oversight is here
By Jon Allsop
It’s official: the Democrats—and divided government—are back. The 116th Congress was sworn in yesterday, with the Dems seizing the House majority and Nancy Pelosi assuming the speakership. Pelosi invited children visiting the floor to crowd around her as she took the oath: a none-too-subtle metaphor for youthful diversity and a changing of the guard. The press pounced on the images.
The opening ceremonies consummated a shift in media focus from the GOP toward the Democrats. (The turn in attention had begun in earnest after the midterms and sharpened this week as Elizabeth Warren kicked the party’s 2020 primary season into gear.) Feeling ignored, President Trump hosted a surprise presser yesterday afternoon—his first-ever foray into a stunned, half-empty briefing room. After rambling for a bit, he invited officials from the border patrol union to tell journalists that the government should stay shut down until there’s funding for a wall. Reporters said that the session was a blatant stunt to steal Pelosi’s thunder and stressed that it did not constitute a “briefing” (as had been advertised) because questions were not permitted. On MSNBC, Hallie Jackson called it “the human longform version of a presidential tweet.”
Going forward, House Democrats will try to keep Trump the center of attention. But Trump won’t like how they’re planning on doing it. In the run-up to the House handover, reporting focused less on the Democrats’ legislative agenda—which is practically a dead letter given Republican control of the Senate and White House—and more on their likely oversight strategy. On Wednesday, The Daily podcast of The New York Times re-upped Jason Zengerle’s interviews from December with Reps. Jerry Nadler, Adam Schiff, and Elijah Cummings, three key committee chairs who intend to use their newfound subpoena powers to obtain and publish information on Trump and the investigations swirling around him.
When Republicans controlled the House, these committees—judiciary, intelligence, and oversight—played “no role whatsoever, they just haven’t done oversight,” Zengerle said. Key GOP figures used them to shield Trump from scrutiny and even to paint him as the victim of a deep-state conspiracy: last February, Devin Nunes, as intelligence committee chair, published a dubious memo painting the investigation into Russian election meddling as politically biased. Yesterday, the timer on that obfuscation ran out. “The world changed today for President Trump,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper said last night. “For the first time since taking office, President Trump is facing the prospect of real, extensive scrutiny from the opposition party led by a highly disciplined adversary.”
The Democrats’ new oversight powers are an opening for the press, of course, in that they should provide an important new stream of information about the Mueller probe and other investigations into Trump and his associates. That’s welcome news. But reporters should remember that the Democrats have their own agenda when it comes to what they might release and when they might release it. As Zengerle noted on The Daily, Pelosi and her committee colleagues have already ordered their oversight priorities by what they think will have the biggest political impact.
Below, more on the new Democratic House:
- Pelosi’s media flip: Before being sworn in as speaker, Pelosi told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie that she wouldn’t rule out indictment or impeachment for Trump, objecting to the Justice Department’s conclusion that a sitting president cannot be indicted. Pelosi is now aggressively setting the media agenda: she’ll appear tonight on an MSNBC town-hall-style broadcast hosted by Joy Reid. Last month, I explored how Pelosi turned months of negative coverage on its head.
- Schiff-ting dynamics: Vanity Fair’s Claire Landsbaum has more on the new power-brokers in Washington, including Nadler, Schiff, Cummings, and Pelosi. Last month, The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin profiled Schiff, who told him that his priorities include finding out who Donald Trump, Jr., phoned after the notorious Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. Speculation abounds that the blocked number in his call log belongs to his father.
- Beyond Mueller: The Democrats won’t only train their oversight powers on the Trump investigations: they’ll go deep on policy and ethics breaches across the federal government. Last week, Nathalie Baptiste of Mother Jones focused on a top target: Ben Carson, the Housing and Urban Development Secretary.
Other notable stories:
- After Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes asked Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the president of Egypt, tough questions about his human rights record, the Egyptian Embassy in the US contacted CBS and told them to pull the show. CBS refused. The interview will air Sunday at 7pm ET.
- For CJR, Anna Altman recaps the recent scandal at Der Spiegel, the German news weekly where a star reporter, Claas Relotius, repeatedly invented facts and sources for his stories. Critics say the magazine missed the deceptions because of its overemphasis on literary prose. “Relotius wrote in typical Spiegel style,” Altman writes, “descriptive, colorful, even purple prose that emphasizes the emotional over the factual, often going so far as to imagine a protagonist’s interior world."
- Under a controversial new proposal, the Interior Department could move to cap the number of Freedom of Information Act requests it processes each month, KUER’s Nate Hegyi reports. The proposal would also make it harder to file quick FOIAs for breaking news stories.
- Digiday’s Max Willens has an intriguing look at artificial-intelligence efforts at Forbes, where “Bertie,” a content management system rolled out last year, recommends topics, links, headlines, and images to contributors based on their past articles. Forbes is currently testing a new tool which would draft copy for writers.
- After announcing her presidential intentions this week, Warren sat down for an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. Politico’s Jason Schwartz and David Siders report that Maddow’s “direct line” to the Democratic Party base makes her a sought-after interlocutor as the 2020 primary race starts to heat up: “With ratings surging at MSNBC, political strategists and communications experts say getting air time on the left-leaning network, and the Rachel Maddow Show in particular, could be crucial for candidates looking to separate themselves from what is expected to be a crowded Democratic field.”
- More early fodder from the Democratic campaign trail: Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who ran for the party’s nomination in 2016, used an op-ed in Iowa’s Des Moines Register to rule out a repeat bid and throw his weight behind Beto O’Rourke instead.
- The Times opinion section is adding Jamelle Bouie, Slate’s chief political correspondent, to its columnist roster. He’ll start later this month.
- And with Glamour going out of print and rival titles already online-only, the Post’s Lavanya Ramanathan asks whether we’ll miss women’s magazines when they’re gone. “In their heyday, these publications offered a pipeline for the nation’s best female journalists,” Ramanathan writes. Nonetheless, they’ve long been criticized for “pummeling readers with messages that their bodies were less than desirable and that their boyfriend’s eyes probably wandered and that only products could fill the void.”