Democrats agitating for a Trump 'truth commission' that investigates the outgoing president's COVID-19 response, business entanglements, and border separation policies

  • Several prominent members of Congress and government-reform groups say a 9/11 Commission-style bipartisan investigation of the Trump administration's failings is essential to overcoming them.
  • "We cannot simply let these things go," Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat, told Insider.
  • But President-elect Joe Biden appears motivated to move beyond the Trump presidency, and some in Congress are reluctant to spend time and energy reliving the past four years.
  • Expect many, if not most, Republicans to resist. A Republican National Committee spokesman called the idea of such a commission "a bogus continuation of the partisan witch hunts."
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Atop Capitol Hill, congressional Democrats have never given President Donald Trump a moment's peace, waylaying him with multiple House inquiries that bled into full-blown impeachment.

But several members of Congress and prominent government-reform-minded organizations told Insider they wanted even more from the 117th Congress and President-elect Joe Biden: a Trump "truth commission" that autopsies the outgoing president's tempestuous tenure.

This Trump truth commission could investigate the White House's COVID-19 response, the government's separation of immigrant children from their parents, and the blurring of lines among Trump's governmental, political, and business interests, among other matters. 

With the backing of Congress and the president, the commission could compel witness testimony, produce a public report, and offer recommendations for improving national governance.

Supporters envision the commission as an independent, bipartisan body in the mold of the 9/11-related National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, and, more recently, the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. 

Sen. Joe Manchin, a centrist-minded West Virginia Democrat, says the formation of a Trump truth commission is "a good idea."

"There has to be something to restore the confidence and faith in people that what they are hearing is factual, is truthful," he said.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan who serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, told Insider, "We cannot simply let these things go once he's out of the White House. We must set a precedent for future administrations and hopefully deter future executive actions that will further exact irreparable harm on the most vulnerable."

Another supporter is former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat and one of 10 people to serve on the 9/11 Commission.

"It has to be bipartisan right from the beginning, and it could contribute to breaking down this polarization we have," Kerrey said, adding of Congress: "I hope they would be supportive of something like this."

Louis Clark, the CEO and executive director of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Project, offered a maxim: If Americans don't learn from history, they'll be condemned to repeat it.

"For that reason alone, the precedent-shattering experience of this Trump administration demands thoughtful and independent examination," Clark said.

"A commission — it's not just advisable, it's necessary," said Donald Sherman, the deputy director for the nonpartisan government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "There will be pressure to move on. We can't move on until there's a fair accounting."

Republicans decry more 'witch hunts'

Such a commission, if created, would represent yet another post-presidency stomach punch to Trump's legacy and legal fortunes.

Trump is already facing a perilous future pockmarked with potential federal- and state-level investigations involving matters both criminal and civil that concern aspects of his presidency, political campaign, business interests, and tax returns.

This week, Rep. Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat, accused Trump of "treachery" and "treason." He demanded the Department of Justice investigate whether the president and his administration committed "crimes against our nation and Constitution," including allegations of hindering the US Census, attacking the validity of the 2020 election, and personally profiting from the presidency.

Pascrell, the cochairman of the Congressional Law Enforcement Caucus, has previously asked authorities to investigate Trump's reelection-campaign debt, whether he used of government resources for political purposes, and US Postal Service-related decisions.

He elaborated on his reasoning in a statement to Insider.

"The smell of criminality of the last four years is unprecedented in our national life," the 12-term lawmaker said. "It should not be swept under the rug, and there must be accountability."

But the creation of a bipartisan Trump truth commission would all but certainly face massive obstacles from Republicans who have little interest in flaying their party's former and possibly future leader, no matter the impetus.

Consider that most GOP leaders have stood by Trump as the president refuses to concede the 2020 election, instead clinging to the now astronomical odds that he, not Biden, will be inaugurated president on January 20. 

Since Election Day, Trump has incessantly tarred the vote as "rigged" and a "fraud," but almost all of his campaign's various court challenges in critical states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nevada have failed. Election officials across the nation, both Republican and Democratic, have declared the election fair and free of widespread problems that could affect the outcome.

Most Republicans also believe that Trump is doing a fine job. 

For example, the Trump administration, in conjunction with the private sector, developed coronavirus vaccines through Operation Warp Speed and in "defiance of many so-called experts who said it couldn't be done," Republican National Committee spokesman Steve Guest argued.

"Any commission Democrats were to create to look back at the Trump administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic would be nothing more than a bogus continuation of the partisan witch hunts which have consumed Democrats for the past four years," Guest said.

The White House, the Biden presidential transition office, and spokespersons for the top four congressional leadership offices in the House and Senate did not respond to requests for comment. 

Whether a bipartisan Trump "truth commission" is created may depend on whether President-elect Joe Biden wants one.REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

Taking cues from Biden

Biden has not publicly addressed the notion of a Trump truth commission. He may, however, lack motivation to endlessly pummel Trump.

On November 7, during a speech in which he acknowledged becoming president-elect, Biden foreshadowed what many Democrats believe will be a concerted effort to move beyond Trump. Biden asked Americans to "put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us and come together as a nation … it's time for America to unite and to heal."

On Tuesday, NBC News reported that Biden told close advisors that he doesn't want his own presidency consumed by investigations into Trump and the Trump administration. 

Biden's reticence is reminiscent of former President Barack Obama's own decision in 2009 to not push for a proposed truth commission on the Bush administration's counterterrorism policies, including green-lighting practices such as "water boarding" that many human rights activists consider torture.

"We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards," Obama told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos at the time. "My instinct is for us to focus on, 'How do we make sure, moving forward, we are doing the right thing?'"

Several Democratic senators told Insider they're either reserving judgment on whether to create a Trump truth commission — or will defer to Biden.

"I think we are going to take our cue from President-elect Biden," Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said. "At this point, I think he is looking toward the future and I think he's going to be singularly focused on dealing with the current needs including COVID-19, putting a Cabinet together, moving our nation forward."

Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, who lost his 2020 race to serve a full term and now is seen as a possible attorney general in a Biden administration, said he's unfamiliar with the idea of a Trump truth commission, and therefore, couldn't answer questions about it.

"Right now, we just need to get Donald Trump to accept the results of this election and open up the transition. That's first on everyone's mind," Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said.

"Right now, today, I'm focused on ensuring that we have an appropriate, timely, effective transition to the president-elect and vice president-elect," echoed Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a close Biden ally viewed as a potential Cabinet member.

Even Our Revolution, a nonprofit founded in 2016 by Sen. Bernie Sanders that has continually lambasted Trump and his decisions, declined this week to comment on the creation of a Trump truth commission.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib.SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

COVID-19 a prime target

Forming any high-profile, federal-level commission requires ingredients scarce in contemporary politics: common cause, cross-partisanship, goodwill, trust.    

During the current congressional session, Democrats and Republicans alike have floated ideas for various bipartisan commissions, some involving Trump, others not.

Among them: 

  • A proposed coronavirus response-related commission championed by Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who helped prosecute Democrats' case against Trump during his Senate impeachment trial earlier this year.
  • Rep. Barbara Lee, a 12-term California Democrat, sponsored a resolution urging Congress to establish a "United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation."
  • Warren and Rep. Deb Haaland, a Democrat of New Mexico who is in the running to be Biden's Interior secretary, introduced companion bills to form a "truth and healing" commission on Native American boarding school policies of the 19th and early 20th centuries that "had the effect of cultural genocide."
  • Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican, wants a commission to investigate the solvency of Social Security's trust funds. 

None have advanced out of the congressional committees to which they've been referred — and all will likely die before the next Congress forms in January.

When Congress chartered bipartisan commissions after the 9/11 attacks, the BP oil spill, and even Watergate, "both sides wanted to know what happened," said Lauren Bell, a partner at law firm Boies Schiller Flexner whose previous work at the Department of Justice included prosecuting public corruption and fraud offenses committed by elected and appointed public officials.

And while bipartisan commissions can indeed help restore faith in public officials and improve government, the political climate of 2020 isn't favorable for their creation, Bell said. "I'm not sure how you would structure it given how divided the country is right now," she said.

A variety of issues could conceivably warrant a bipartisan commission's attention, from racial justice failings to Trump's shattering of ethical norms, said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. But Republicans and Democrats may find the most mutual interest around the government's handling of COVID-19, he said.

The disease, caused by the novel coronavirus, has killed nearly 250,000 people in the United States alone, as of November 17, and sickened millions. 

"A bipartisan commission could be extremely worthwhile for investigating what we can learn and do for the future so the government can do better," Rosenberg said.

"We need a single set of facts on what happened," added Justin Rood, director of the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight's Congressional Oversight Initiative.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who was Hillary Clinton's running mate in the 2016 election, said he is inclined to agree.

"How come other nations figured it out and protected their own citizenry so much better than the United States?" he told Insider. "So I do think there needs to be a significant, 9/11-style commission to dig into this." 

Tlaib, for one, doesn't want to stop there, citing numerous "crimes and outrages" for which she believes a bipartisan truth commission should investigate the Trump administration: gutting EPA regulations, hindering the US Census to the detriment of communities of color, turning private Trump properties into "pay-to-play clearinghouses and putting taxpayer dollars into their own pockets.

"These acts will reverberate for generations beyond this forever-impeached president's time in the White House," Tlaib said, "so any avenue of justice we can pursue on behalf of my residents, those immigrant families, and our environment should be pursued."

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