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Trump Declares War—on Accountability

The administration's moves to extend executive privilege, rebuff subpoenas, and challenge the courts are more than a rivalry between government branches.

Win McNamee/Getty

The Trump administration has spent the past week refusing to give an inch, wielding executive privilege as a shield against every subpoena and request from Democrats.

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend that the full House hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt for failing to hand over an unredacted version of the Mueller report. Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin has repeatedly rebuffed Democratic requests for six years of President Trump’s tax returns, an open violation of the law. Some members of Congress are already threatening to hold Mnuchin and former White House counsel Don McGahn—who has been instructed by the White House to refuse to obey House subpoenas—in contempt, as well.

Meanwhile, Republicans are up in arms about yet another subpoena, sent to Donald Trump Jr. by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr. Trump Jr. has been asked to answer questions about apparent discrepancies between his testimony before three congressional committees and the Mueller report—but Donald the Younger (and, it seems, many Republicans) isn’t keen on appearing.

A place where most Republicans are happy to appear is the Federalist Society. It was there, earlier this week, that Vice President Mike Pence promised to start challenging injunctions leveled by federal courts at a host of Trump administration orders.

Individually, all these developments are troubling, but could be seen as more of the headline-grabbing chaos America has come to expect from the Trump era. But taken together, the events of the past few days represent a coordinated broadside in an administration war on congressional oversight, if not an attempt to fully obliterate the bedrock constitutional principle of checks and balances. It also represents a disturbing pivot, from a White House determined to roll back a century of systemic reforms—through executive orders, conservative judges, and the (very) occasional piece of conservative legislation—to one openly determined to abrogate the system. The White House is doing everything it can to halt any and all oversight. These actions are intended to prevent Congress from fulfilling its constitutionally-mandated duties.

The first two years of the Trump administration often felt like what The New Yorker’s David Rohde described as a “slow-motion Watergate.” The guardrails of democracy had clearly fallen off. The president clearly viewed both democratic norms and, in many cases, the law with disdain. But the nation seemed to avoid a full-scale constitutional crisis because a handful of Trump officials apparently jumped on grenades—most visibly, in this news cycle, McGahn, who reportedly refused a Trump order to fire special counsel Robert Mueller—and because of what can only be described as dumb luck. There was no equivalent to Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, no clear moment where the government lurched into the abyss. Instead, the disaster was more diffuse, permeating nearly every aspect of Trump’s presidency, but nonetheless never quite reaching an inflection point.

President Trump understood the seriousness of the Mueller investigation from the beginning. “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency,” he said after then-attorney general Jeff Sessions appointed Mueller in May of 2017. “I’m fucked.” Trump, haunted by previous investigations of the executive branch, understood its seriousness. “Everyone tells me if you get one of these independent counsels it ruins your presidency,” Trump continued. “It takes years and years and I won’t be able to do anything. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me.” The next morning, Trump tweeted, at 4:52 a.m., “This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”

Despite Barr’s assertion that “the White House fully cooperated with the special counsel’s investigation,” Trump did the bare minimum throughout Mueller’s two-year inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election. The president repeatedly sought to interfere with the investigation, but never successfully ended it. He provided written answers to some of the questions from Mueller, but made it clear that he would fight a subpoena all the way to the Supreme Court. Mueller appears to have accepted this path of least resistance in order to complete the investigation rather than pick a legal fight with the administration (although he may have been pushed to prematurely conclude by Barr).

Trump has no such respect for (or, apparently, fear of) Congress’s oversight powers. Though he spoke loudly and carried a smallish stick with Mueller—the president has decided to go to the mattresses when presented with requests and subpoenas from the numerous committees investigating his administration. The White House is refusing to provide Congress with key documents, from an unredacted copy of the Mueller report to copies of the president’s tax returns, and doing everything it can to block key figures—whether or not they are still in the administration—from testifying before relevant committees.

To an extent, this is a gambit meant to improve the president’s seemingly poor reelection odds. In recent months, Trump and his allies have worked to amplify the argument he had been making about the Mueller investigation for years: The Democrats and Trump’s enemies were conspiring to create fake scandals in an attempt to delegitimize and destroy his presidency.

But, increasingly, the country is also falling prey to the president’s own biases—and those of many Republican leaders. Trump belongs to a class that always acts with impunity and treats any call for accountability with disgust. The GOP, meanwhile, has abandoned its constitutionally mandated Article One powers in exchange for stacking federal courts with like-minded judges. (In a sign that irony is not dead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed the lifetime appointment of a record 38th circuit court judge while the cameras were trained on the House Judiciary’s vote to hold the attorney general in contempt.)

In response, Democrats have only slowly begun to use the arsenal at their disposal. “We cannot allow this bad president to set bad precedent,” House Ways and Means Committee member Lloyd Doggett told reporters earlier this week. “If Trump once again faces only Republican silence and Democratic timidity, he will continue to erode our democracy by assuming more and more power.” The potential next step was revealed 46 years ago during the Watergate hearings: Should the likes of Barr and Mnuchin continue to flout subpoenas, the House can threaten to send the sergeant-at-arms to arrest them. Democrats may not have the stomach for that level of escalation, but it doesn’t change the basic truth. Until January of 2021—at the earliest—the United States will be the scene of an open war between two branches of government.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for all her months of careful parsing, understands this. She indicated on Thursday that she now believed the country was in the midst of a “constitutional crisis.” “The administration has decided they are not going to honor their oath of office,” she said. Of course, members of Congress take an oath of office, too—are they finally ready to honor theirs?