The Dems Take Charge

Sarah Silbiger/The New York Times/Redux
Democratic representatives Katie Hill, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Lauren Underwood, and Angie Craig, Capitol Hill, January 2019

I doubt that it was even noticed much beyond Washington, but a meeting on January 10 between Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and members of the House of Representatives gave a pretty good sense of how the next two years are likely to proceed, and how different they will be from the two years just past.

Mnuchin was summoned to explain the administration’s actions regarding Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch who is a former associate of Paul Manafort and whom the FBI tried (apparently without success) to turn into an informant about ties between the Kremlin and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Last spring, the Treasury Department added three Deripaska-owned companies to its list of sanctioned foreign entities as punishment for Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election. In December the department reversed course after obtaining an agreement from Deripaska that his ownership stakes in the companies would be reduced to less than half. One of them is the world’s second-largest aluminum producer, and the sanctions listing had roiled the global metal markets. Deripaska lobbied the department heavily, and House Democrats wanted Mnuchin to give them a classified briefing about the decision.

First of all, the mere fact that the meeting even happened is a sign of change. Republicans would never have asked Mnuchin to account for such a move. Second, it played out in the tense, cat-and-mouse way that we can probably expect to see repeated many times. Mnuchin, according to The New York Times, was forced to wait in a congressional auditorium for nearly an hour as members cast votes on unrelated matters. When he finally did testify, Democrats say, he told the House members utterly nothing of value. “This, with stiff competition, mind you, was one of the worst classified briefings we’ve received from the Trump administration,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi afterward. “The secretary barely testified. He answered some questions, but he didn’t give testimony.”1 (The following week, the House voted to prevent the sanctions from being lifted, but the Senate effort to do so failed by three votes.)

The Mnuchin briefing happened one day after Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer accused President Trump of throwing a tantrum during a White House meeting about the government shutdown, which he denied in his usual flamboyant way (“Cryin Chuck told his favorite lie when he used his standard sound bite that I ‘slammed the table & walked out of the room,’” Trump tweeted). The negotiations, such as they are, over the shutdown are in great flux as I write, but they have already intensified the tone of intractable rancor that was expected to govern relations between the executive and legislative branches before it even happened.

The day of that White House meeting, the House…

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