House Democratic leaders have made it increasingly clear that they have no appetite for impeaching the president. What has been Donald Trump’s response? To spit in their eye.
Last week, Trump declared that he would be “fighting all the subpoenas” from House Democrats and, for once in his life, he’s been true to his word.
This is happening not just on investigations of the president.
According to Representative Elijah Cummings, who helms the House Oversight and Reform Committee, the White House has “refused to produce a single piece of paper or a single witness in any of the Committee’s investigations this entire year.”
Quite simply, the president appears to have no intention of subjecting itself to any oversight by Congress at all.
The latest move came this week, when Trump’s lawyers sued Deutsche Bank and Capital One in an effort to prevent the two banks, which had previously loaned Trump money, from cooperating with congressional investigators. This follows a suit earlier this month against Trump’s accounting firm — and the House Oversight Committee — seeking to prevent compliance with congressional subpoenas.
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnunchin has refused to let the IRS hand over the president’s taxes. In addition, the attorney general, William Barr, is still refusing to turn over an unredacted copy of the Mueller report and he has threatened to ignore a congressional subpoena to testify if he cannot dictate the format of the hearing. And White House lawyers are trying to stop former counsel Don McGahn — and star of the Mueller Report — from testifying before Congress by invoking executive privilege, even though the privilege was waived when McGahn spoke to the special counsel.
There are other examples of blatant White House stonewalling: Last week the Justice Department announced that John Gore, who serves in the civil rights division, would not abide by a congressional subpoena to look at how a citizenship question ended up being included in the 2020 census. Carl Kline, the former head of personnel security at the White House, was told by administration officials to ignore a congressional subpoena mandating that he sit for a deposition to answer questions on how some of Trump’s top aides, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, received their security clearances.
The White House’s strategy is clear — frustrate efforts to conduct legitimate oversight of the executive branch and, if possible, force lengthy court fights intended to run out the clock on congressional investigations.
But the bigger issue, as usual, is that the man who is sitting in the Oval Office has no respect for basic democratic norms. He doesn’t want to be investigated or have the actions of his administration scrutinized by Congress. As he told The Washington Post last week, he doesn’t believe that he needs to comply with congressional requests because he already cooperated with the Mueller investigation. Of course, Trump didn’t actually cooperate with Mueller and his team: He repeatedly tried to have the special counsel fired. But that’s hardly the point — the president cannot pick and choose the laws and norms he chooses to obey.
Congressional oversight of the executive branch is a foundational element of the Constitution and exists, in part, to prevent the kind of situation we are dealing with today — a president who refuses to obide by the law and acts as an unaccountable leader who believes that he can do as he pleases and not be held accountable.
It is yet one more reason why Democrats need to begin impeachment proceedings against him.
No longer is impeachment just about holding Trump accountable for law-breaking he may have already done. It’s the only tool that Congress has — imperfect as it may be — to stop him from continuing to break the law. If Trump can get away with saying no to legitimate congressional inquiries — after two years of repeatedly lawless behavior — why wouldn’t he continue to push the envelope into new areas questionable legality and violations of the norms of the office?
In recent days, rank-and-file Democrats have started to wake up to the reality that allowing Trump to disregard congressional inquiries cannot be ignored. According to a report in The Washington Post, “frustration” among “House Democratic investigators” is increasing and leading some to “question whether they should try to pressure Speaker Nancy Pelosi into launching impeachment proceedings.”
The politics of impeachment issue are, undoubtedly difficult for Democrats, particularly with new polls that show only 37 percent of Americans backing an impeachment push, but Trump’s criminality raises concerns that fall far outside the realm of partisan politics.
For Democrats to do nothing in the face of rampant, brazen, and deliberate flouting of constitutional and legal norms will further tip the balance between two nominally coequal branches of government in favor of the executive branch. Democratic inaction will not only encourage more bad behavior on Trump’s part, it will also give future presidents license to thumb their nose at Congress without repercussions.
For far too long, the executive branch — under both Democratic and Republican presidents — has amassed more and more political power, and often at the expense of Congress. Do congressional Democrats really want to be complicit in making this situation worse? If there is one lesson we’ve learned about Trump over the past three years it is that if you give him an inch, he’ll take a foot. He will continue to violate the law, violate norms, violate the public trust, and violate the basic tenets of representative democracy. If Democrats don’t use the only tool available to holding a president accountable for his actions, impeachment, nothing will stop him from even further undermining our democracy.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.