Trump’s war with congressional Democrats
The oversight battle between the White House and congressional Democrats escalated to a new level of ferocity this week, as the Trump administration defied lawmakers’ demands for access to a wide range of potentially damaging documents and witnesses. Trump invoked executive privilege for the first time in his presidency over the entire Mueller report, to shield redacted portions and all the underlying evidence, which were subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee. After that decision, the Judiciary Committee voted to recommend that the full House hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for refusing to turn over those documents.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin also told House Democrats that he would not comply with their request for Trump’s tax returns under a 1924 law that explicitly gives lawmakers the power to request any tax returns. Mnuchin claimed that such a request “must serve a legitimate legislative purpose,” accusing the Democrats of having none. The Trump family also filed lawsuits to keep Deutsche Bank and Capital One from complying with a House subpoena for bank records involving loans to their business.
The Trump administration also instructed former White House counsel Don McGahn—who told special counsel Robert Mueller’s team that Trump instructed him to fire Mueller and later, to lie about that order—to refuse a subpoena to testify before and provide documents to the House Judiciary Committee. Trump also tweeted that Mueller himself should not be allowed to testify before Congress—contradicting an earlier statement from Barr that he would have no objection to Mueller testifying. Lawmakers and the Justice Department had been negotiating on a date for Mueller’s testimony this month. “No redos for the Dems!” Trump said.
What the editorials said
The Trump administration’s stonewalling of Congress flies in the face of the Constitution, said The Washington Post. “Congress has a profound interest in robust executive branch oversight.” It’s not for the White House to decide what’s fair game. The 1924 law, for example, flatly states that the Treasury secretary “shall furnish” any tax return Congress requests—with no qualifications. And let’s not forget: “Americans last year elected a Democratic House in part to act as a check on a wayward president.”
“The real offense against the Constitution here is by Democrats,” said The Wall Street Journal. Congressional oversight is important, but it needs to have a clear public purpose. This is just a “trawling expedition” to see what nasty details they can dredge up about the president before the 2020 election. Democrats are hoping to bury Trump’s presidency in an avalanche of never-ending investigations without actually having to start impeachment hearings, which would backfire with the public. If Democrats truly believe Trump “is a threat to the Constitution,” they should have the guts to impeach him. Enough with this “pseudo-impeachment.”
What the columnists said
Trump is giving away the game, said Greg Sargent in The Washington Post. He has claimed that the Mueller report resulted in “total exoneration,” and his hand-picked attorney general insists there was insufficient evidence of obstruction of justice. So why is Trump so terrified of letting Americans hear directly from Mueller himself? The truth is that Mueller actually found that Trump’s campaign “expected it would benefit electorally” from Russia’s help and welcomed it; on obstruction, the special counsel “established extensive evidence of criminality.” The president’s anxiety “is as much about optics as it is about substance,” said Eric Lutz in VanityFair.com. Mueller has real “gravitas,” and his testimony could be a dramatic and damaging television spectacle—undermining Barr’s “pro-Trump spin” on the report.
The Democrats now have their own version of “Benghazi,” said Jonathan Tobin in TheFederalist.com. After two years of hoping that Mueller would take down Trump, only to have him come up short, Democrats are hoping to harass Trump by endlessly relitigating Mueller’s investigation and drowning him in other inquiries. It won’t work. Trump “won an election while refusing to release his tax returns and after being exposed by the Access Hollywood tape as being a self-confessed assaulter of women.” What could they possibly find that will change voters’ minds now?
We can only imagine, said Timothy O’Brien in Bloomberg.com. “Trump is the most financially conflicted president of the modern era,” yet the public still knows shockingly little about his business dealings. After he lost more than $1 billion during the 1980s and early ’90s, where and how did he find enough money to recover? Not long ago, our president was a “mobbed-up, money-hemorrhaging failed casino operator whose sons have described him as reliant on Russian financing,” said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com. Americans have a right to know if the president was bailed out by Russians or any other foreign country. Trump’s GOP allies, however, paint all attempts to investigate him as petty politics. Do they really think Trump has nothing to hide? “Or would they rather not know?”
The Trump administration’s unabashed stonewalling “raises the question of what lawmakers can do about it,” said Charlie Savage in The New York Times. In theory, defying congressional subpoenas is a crime punishable by up to 12 months in prison. “But in practice, this law is generally toothless in disputes between Congress and the executive branch,” because the Justice Department—which Trump controls—would have to prosecute any offenders. Congress could also try to enforce its own contempt citations by dispatching the sergeant at arms to arrest recalcitrant witnesses, including Barr, but Congress hasn’t used that authority since 1935. Imposing steep fines on noncompliant witnesses has also been discussed, but it would also be an unprecedented step. Whatever happens next, the resulting court fights could take “months or years,” as Trump appeals any losses to the Supreme Court. The president’s goal is to “run out the clock before the next election.”
Cover illustration by Fred Harper.
Cover photos from AP, U.S. Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Eric S. Powell, Getty