House Democrats might as well save everyone’s time and declare the entire Trump administration in contempt of Congress.
The White House has repeatedly shown nothing but disdain for a fundamental principle of US democracy – the checks and balances of lawmaker oversight – in a string of escalating showdowns.
On Monday alone, a Democratic-led House committee scheduled a vote on holding Attorney General William Barr in contempt over his refusal to send Congress the un-redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
Later, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declined a request to hand over Trump’s tax returns in accordance with a little used provision of the law governing the IRS. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal said he would seek legal advice, but a court battle is inevitable. It would not be a surprise if Mnuchin also eventually faces a contempt charge.
Democrats may also vote to hold Trump’s former White House counsel Don McGahn in contempt of Congress after the White House told him to refuse a subpoena for documents from the House Judiciary Committee. Current White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote to Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler Tuesday directing the committee to request the documents from the White House, and not McGahn, arguing that the executive branch was the appropriate legal custodian of the material.
Meanwhile, Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen went to prison, in part for a crime in which the President was implicated.
And a group of 450 bipartisan former Justice Department officials declared that Trump would already have faced “multiple felony charges for obstruction” had he not been President.
Trump is also stepping up pressure on Barr to stop Mueller appearing before Congress after halting testimony from several other officials and launching personal lawsuits to block subpoenas demanding the turnover of his financial records.
In the long run, the confrontation between the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats threatens to further tilt the balance of power in Washington from the legislature to the executive and an increasingly unrestrained President.
“We cannot allow this bad president to set bad precedent,” said Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas.
“If Trump once again faces only Republican silence and Democratic timidity, he will continue to erode our democracy by assuming more and more power.”
Battling Congress is on brand move for Trump
But Trump has never shown much concern for the health of America’s constitutional infrastructure.
And this approach is a sound political strategy for the President, one he can leverage in the run-up to the 2020 election to accuse Democrats of unfairly persecuting him.
Waging permanent political war and defying restraints fits Trump’s barnstorming character and gels with his key political image as a disruptor of traditional structures and elites.
By refusing Congress’ demands for testimony, witnesses and documentation, the White House will almost inevitably send the battle to the courts.
That means it could take months or even years for judges, at various levels of the judicial pyramid, to decide cases – a scenario that suits Trump perfectly well.
Even if he loses some of the multiple cases, judgments may come down too late to allow Democrats to effectively exercise their House majority and may get lost in the tumult ahead of 2020.
Trump’s defiance is providing a rallying point for some Republicans, who are seizing on some reasonable arguments that can be marshaled to refute the Democratic strategy.
Some analysts argue that Barr would be breaking the law by handing over evidence from the Mueller probe that includes grand jury testimony or intelligence material. The Justice Department also pointed out Monday that top Democrats had yet to read a less-redacted version of the report that has been available in a secure location in Congress.
New talks between Justice Department officials and the House Judiciary Committee are scheduled for Tuesday to try to head off a contempt vote in the committee.
Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Monday that although Trump should have released his tax returns, Congress should not compel him to do so.
“Ways and Means did not provide a good reason for it,” Kinzinger said, referring to the Democratic argument that there was a legislative purpose to seeing Trump’s financial records. “The reason they want President Trump’s tax return is to go through it and further embarrass him.”
For an administration that cared about its reputation for transparency, contempt citations for key Cabinet officials would be damaging – even though they are largely symbolic.
The Obama administration managed just fine with Attorney General Eric Holder, held in contempt by Congress over the Fast and Furious controversy. And Trump has already proven his almost mystical ability to evade consequences of scandal, at least with the base of committed supporters on whom he has build his political edifice.
It appears that while Washington experts warn about eroding the rule of law and constitutional constraints, the impact of such an institutional remodeling is not felt by many voters who are preoccupied with less lofty concerns like keeping their jobs and decent health care.
Any attempt by House Democrats to take things a step further and impeach a Cabinet officer such as Barr would be futile, since Republicans in the Senate would never vote to convict him.
In effect, the barrier thrown up against congressional oversight is a bet that Democrats will not use their ultimate sanction – impeachment proceedings against the President himself – fearing the political consequences.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeatedly told her troops that a big election win in 2020 is the best way to deal with Trump – and to stop him contesting the election.
Contempt for Congress is in the administration’s DNA
Contempt for Congress’ institutional role is not new for the Trump administration – it has been a constant theme – even when Republicans had a monopoly on power on Capitol Hill.
Trump frequently castigated former House Speaker Paul Ryan, despite his unwillingness to act as a check on presidential power, for not being sufficiently supportive.
He has refused bipartisan Senate demands to report on whether the Saudi government was responsible for the brutal killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year.
Last month, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Congress was not “smart enough” to understand the President’s tax returns.
Trump has failed to seek Senate confirmation for temporary replacements for departed Cabinet secretaries, telling reporters the practice enhances his own power.
In the most striking example of presidential muscle, Trump performed an end-run around Congress with a national emergency declaration to reprogram money for his border wall.
Many constitutional experts saw the move as a threat to the bedrock principle that Congress, not the President, enjoys the power of the purse.
Several of Trump’s Cabinet members have made their personal disdain for congressional oversight obvious.
Former acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker sparked audible gasps in February when he broke protocol to tell the House Judiciary chairman his time for questions had expired.
And Mnuchin was involved in a bad-tempered spat with California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters who told him to stop telling her how to run her committee after he told her to “take the gavel and bang it.”
CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report