• Ryan O'Connell

The Man Who Would Be King

Updated: May 7, 2019

May 6, 2019

Is Donald Trump trying to goad the Democrats in Congress into starting impeachment proceedings against him?

It’s not clear whether lawmakers will seek to hold the President in contempt of Congress—which is an impeachable offense—but Trump is clearly treating Congress with contempt. Trump is acting like an absolute monarch, airily dismissing legislators’ requests for information and testimony from government officials because he doesn’t think they are necessary. But it’s Congress’ call, not the President’s, to decide how to conduct investigations.

The President is openly defying Congress’ authority to conduct oversight of the executive branch, which is a critical element of the separation of powers mandated by the Constitution. Trump is virtually poking Democratic leaders in the eye, with multiple provocations. Adopting a scorched-earth approach, Trump is attempting to sabotage any investigations into his finances or the issues raised by the Mueller report.

Trump has vowed to fight “all” subpoenas from Congressional committees. The Treasury Department has refused, presumably at the president’ direction, to disclose his tax returns to a House committee. However, the IRS is obligated by statute to honor that committee’s request for individuals’ tax returns.

The President has indicated he will try to prevent his former White House Counsel, Don McGahn, from testifying before Congress. That is an extraordinary maneuver. It’s as though Richard Nixon had forbidden John Dean, his White House Counsel, to cooperate with Congress during the Watergate hearings. It is particularly stunning because McGahn no longer works for Trump or the government.

It’s easy to understand why Trump wants to block McGahn from testifying. The lawyer was a key witness for the Mueller investigation. His testimony provided the details of several incidents in which Trump may well have attempted to obstruct justice, as he tried to get Mueller fired and asked aides (including McGahn) to lie about critical events.

Since Mueller essentially invited Congress to investigate those episodes, it is highly appropriate for Congress to ask McGahn questions about the President’s intent in taking those actions. That is key to determining whether he committed criminal acts.

Now, Trump has even declared that Mueller should not testify before Congress. You could call that either chutzpah or a reducio ad absurdum. Either way, his remarks are guaranteed to inflame passions and put pressure on the Democratic leadership in the House, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi tries to keep her left flank under control.

The Once and Future King?

Pelosi is a very practical politician. She knows that almost 40% of Democrats say they don’t want their leaders to pursue impeachment against Trump. Some Republicans in Congress almost seem to be taunting the Democrats to start a proceeding, on the theory that it might alienate voters.

Democrats have also been concerned that impeachment proceedings might distract them from emphasizing popular themes in the 2020 election: health care, wage inequality, climate change etc. But what about a division of labor? Let Representatives Jerry Nadler and Adam Schiff lead the charge on impeachment and nationa

In any case, Trump’s behavior has become so provocative, so blatantly in violation of Constitutional norms, that the Democrats may no longer have a choice. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, “there is no political inconvenience exception” to protecting the Constitution.

A New Watergate

This has become our Watergate, whether we like it or not. Trump’s stonewalling is all too reminiscent of President Richard Nixon’s tactics. Like Trump, Nixon was not directly involved in an underlying crime; he did not know about or authorize the break-in at the Watergate. But Nixon became deeply involved in the cover-up, telling his aides to lie to investigators and refusing Congressional committees’ demands for documents.

Mueller obtained convictions or guilty pleas for eight individuals, including several Trump campaign officials and Michael Flynn, a former White House staffer. In many cases, these people were convicted of lying to government investigators or Congress or otherwise obstructing justice.

In Trump’s case, the special counsel’s report describes in detail 10 incidents in which the President tried to impede the investigation into Russian interference with the election. Mueller’s team makes a very strong case that Trump engaged in obstruction of justice.

The Democrats are worried that an impeachment proceeding would be a lost cause, because Republican Senators would never vote to convict Trump. That might be realistic—Sen. Mitch McConnell does not appear to be encumbered by principles--but it might also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Republicans in Congress supported Richard Nixon up to the very end, but they turned against him when the evidence provided during the hearings caused public opinion to change.

The Democrats could use hearings now to focus voters on Trump’s attempts to obstruct justice. Although the public seems to have tuned out, it’s not clear that many understand that Mueller accused the President of deeply criminal behavior.

Attorney General Sets a Low Bar for Integrity

That’s partly because Mueller’s boss is not an honest cop. Bill Barr, the Attorney General, has misled the public about key elements of the special counsel’s report. He is acting like John Mitchell, Nixon’s dishonest, devious Attorney General.

Barr has made several statements about the Mueller investigation, both in press conferences and testimony to Congress, which are either highly misleading or simply false. Let’s take two examples.

Barr has said that Mueller did not take into account the Justice Department’s policy that a sitting President cannot be indicted for criminal acts committed while in office. In fact, Mueller’s report stated very clearly that is the main reason why he did not bring criminal charges against Trump. The special counsel noted specifically that a President can be indicted for any such criminal conduct, once he leaves office.

The Attorney General said that the administration had cooperated “fully” with the Mueller investigation. But Trump tried repeatedly to get Mueller fired, refused to be interviewed by Mueller’s team and frequently criticized the investigators as “angry Democrats”.

The Final Straw

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, is not given to outbursts, and she has been trying to avoid impeachment hearings. But even Pelosi has lost her patience with Barr, after she learned last week that the Attorney General had misled legislators on a key point during earlier testimony about the Mueller investigation.

In April, Barr told members of Congress that Special Counsel Mueller had not raised any issues about Barr’s summary comments on his investigation. In fact, Mueller had sent a letter to Barr complaining about how Barr characterized some crucial points in his report.

Pelosi criticized Barr in very harsh terms:

“What is deadly serious is that the Attorney General of the United States of America was not telling the truth to the Congress…That’s a crime.”

If you are a Republican reader, you may be outraged by her statement. But Pelosi was not posturing; she was right to be infuriated by Barr’s deceit. This was a serious breach of trust.

It’s deplorable when a politician like Trump lies when he is making speeches or talking to the press, but it does not violate the law. However, lying in a Congressional hearing is a crime, and it is shocking that an Attorney General would do that.

After his Senate appearance, the Attorney General refused to testify before a House committee, because he did not want to be interviewed by staff lawyers. The administration has said that such a demand is “unprecedented”, but that is not true. Barr is trying to dictate the terms on which he will appear before Congress. Barr has also declined to provide a full copy of the Mueller report to the House Judiciary Committee.

So the Democrats in Congress are confronted by a President who stonewalls them and an Attorney General who misleads them. If the Democrats resort to lawsuits to get the documents and the testimony they seek, those could be bogged down for a long time...and until after the 2020 election.

This is a very tough choice for the Democrats, since they could face political costs if they move to impeach the President. But shouldn’t defending the Constitution come first?

Unless, of course, you think the divine right of kings was a great political philosophy.

The Wall Street Democrat

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