PHILADELPHIA - JULY 1: Two women walk past a painting of the beginning of the U.S. Constitution during a preview of the National Constitution Center July 1, 2003 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The National Constitution Center will be the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to honoring and explaining the U.S. Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will receive the Philadelphia Liberty Medal at the NCC's grand opening on July 4, 2003.  (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
PHILADELPHIA - JULY 1: Two women walk past a painting of the beginning of the U.S. Constitution during a preview of the National Constitution Center July 1, 2003 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The National Constitution Center will be the only museum in the U.S. dedicated to honoring and explaining the U.S. Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will receive the Philadelphia Liberty Medal at the NCC's grand opening on July 4, 2003. (Photo by William Thomas Cain/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:53
Everyone gets 'constitutional crisis' wrong
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) speaks to reporters as she arrives for the continuation of the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol on January 29, 2020 in Washington, DC. The next phase of the trial, in which senators will be allowed to ask written questions, will extend into tomorrow. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) speaks to reporters as she arrives for the continuation of the Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol on January 29, 2020 in Washington, DC. The next phase of the trial, in which senators will be allowed to ask written questions, will extend into tomorrow. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Now playing
04:08
Murkowski explains why she's voting for Biden nominee
President Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the White House in Washington, after former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci/AP
President Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the White House in Washington, after former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Now playing
03:01
'A step forward': Biden speaks after Chauvin's guilty verdict
CNN's Eli Honig explains how much time former police officer Derek Chauvin, 45, could face after he was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the case of George Floyd.
CNN
CNN's Eli Honig explains how much time former police officer Derek Chauvin, 45, could face after he was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the case of George Floyd.
Now playing
03:25
Here's the sentence Derek Chauvin could face after guilty verdict
CNN's Van Jones reacts to Attorney General Merrick Garland's announcement that the Justice Department has launched a federal civil probe into policing practices in Minneapolis following the death of George Floyd and the murder convictions for ex-cop Derek Chauvin.
CNN
CNN's Van Jones reacts to Attorney General Merrick Garland's announcement that the Justice Department has launched a federal civil probe into policing practices in Minneapolis following the death of George Floyd and the murder convictions for ex-cop Derek Chauvin.
Now playing
03:08
Van Jones reacts to Justice Department's Minneapolis police probe
CNN
Now playing
03:14
'Performative outrage': Avlon on GOP backlash to Rep. Waters
Two Honduran children found clinging to an island surrounded by a powerful current in the Rio Grande were rescued by Border Patrol agents and taken into custody, the region's top border official said, the latest example of the dangers migrants face as a growing number desperately attempt to reach the US.
U.S. Border Patrol
Two Honduran children found clinging to an island surrounded by a powerful current in the Rio Grande were rescued by Border Patrol agents and taken into custody, the region's top border official said, the latest example of the dangers migrants face as a growing number desperately attempt to reach the US.
Now playing
02:22
See Border Patrol rescue 2 migrant children in Rio Grande
Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House on April 14, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Andrew Harnik/Pool/Getty Images
Biden speaks from the Treaty Room in the White House on April 14, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Now playing
02:59
Enten: Biden is focused on what Americans care about
CNN
Now playing
02:40
Biden says he's praying for 'right verdict' in Chauvin trial
ST. PAUL, MN - NOVEMBER 6:  Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale concedes the election to his Republican opponent Norm Coleman November 6, 2002 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Mondale and Coleman were in a race for U.S. Senate that was too close to call the evening before.  (Photo by Mark Erickson/Getty Images)
Mark Erickson/Getty Images
ST. PAUL, MN - NOVEMBER 6: Former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale concedes the election to his Republican opponent Norm Coleman November 6, 2002 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Mondale and Coleman were in a race for U.S. Senate that was too close to call the evening before. (Photo by Mark Erickson/Getty Images)
Now playing
03:00
Walter Mondale dies at 93
george w bush congress immigration rhetoric cbs intv sot mxp vpx_00000000.png
george w bush congress immigration rhetoric cbs intv sot mxp vpx_00000000.png
Now playing
01:25
Bush calls on Congress to tone down 'harsh rhetoric' on immigration
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 23: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Constitutional and Common Sense Steps to Reduce Gun Violence" on March 23, 2021 in Washington, DC.  Many senators spoke both for and against gun control the day after a shooting in Boulder, Colorado where a gunman opened fire at a grocery store, killing ten people. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 23: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on "Constitutional and Common Sense Steps to Reduce Gun Violence" on March 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. Many senators spoke both for and against gun control the day after a shooting in Boulder, Colorado where a gunman opened fire at a grocery store, killing ten people. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)
Now playing
03:18
Berman on Cruz's latest tweet: 'The pot calling the kettle violent'
Now playing
01:57
Chuck Hagel criticizes Trump's statement on Afghanistan
gun laws shootings Comer pamela brown nr vpx _00015627.png
CNN
gun laws shootings Comer pamela brown nr vpx _00015627.png
Now playing
02:23
'I can't answer that': Kentucky lawmaker responds to CNN on gun policy
Now playing
02:39
National security adviser: Russia will face consequences if Navalny dies in prison
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks during a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol on February 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. The House voted 230 to 199 on Friday evening to remove Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) from committee assignments over her remarks about QAnon and other conspiracy theories.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) speaks during a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol on February 5, 2021 in Washington, DC. The House voted 230 to 199 on Friday evening to remove Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) from committee assignments over her remarks about QAnon and other conspiracy theories.
Now playing
03:20
Marjorie Taylor Greene lashes out at media after backlash over controversial caucus
(CNN) —  

Donald Trump’s entire presidency, so far, has been an exercise in straining the normal equilibrium of the US government. The term “constitutional crisis” has been used repeatedly, including this week by Democratic Rep. Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee chairman.

“We cannot allow Donald Trump and his minions to convert a democratic government into what amounts to a monarchy, where a Congress elected by the people has no real role” he said on CNN’s New Day Wednesday.

“The phrase ‘constitutional crisis’ has been overused, but … certainly it’s a constitutional crisis,” he said in response to a question about the term by CNN’s Alisyn Camerota. “Although I don’t like to use that phrase because it’s been used for far less dangerous situations.”

01:32 - Source: CNN
Nadler: We cannot have lawless administration

The latest examples of constitutional stress caused by Trump include his decision to suffocate congressional oversight by refusing to cooperate – like at all – with its investigations following up on the Mueller report or into his tax returns. Attorney General William Barr could be held in contempt of Congress after a House vote Wednesday – not unlike a similar move by Republicans against Eric Holder during the Obama administration.

This type of behavior from Trump – flouting the authority of perceived opponents and supercharging the tension between the branches of government – has been going on since he took office.

Trump keeps testing the US system

He fired the FBI director overseeing an investigation into Russian election interference.

He tried to quash that investigation, publicly and privately.

He dismissed a Department of Justice official who wouldn’t carry out an order the courts later rejected.

When Congress wouldn’t cough up money for his border wall, he declared a national emergency so he could spend it anyway.

He’s verbally attacked the courts, complained about Supreme Court justices and threatened to break up the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. He’s called into question the legitimacy of elections.

Green looks at the firing of James Comey with the aim of quashing the Russia investigation as the start of why Trump needs to be impeached, but other Democrats, most notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are much more reserved on the matter. She’s argued the best way to get rid of him is to beat in him in 2020 in such a big way that he cannot reject the results.

Pelosi feels goaded by Trump

However, her patience with Trump is being tested by his decision to keep current and former officials from testifying to Congress.

“Trump is goading us to impeach him,” she said during an event Tuesday at Cornell. “That’s what he’s doing. Every single day he’s just like taunting, taunting, taunting, because he knows that it would be very divisive in the country, but he doesn’t really care.”

The goading that Pelosi is referring to is a string of decisions by the White House that leave Congress without much recourse other than a march toward potentially long court battles.

The goading includes:

  • Barr won’t testify or release the full Mueller report to lawmakers.

It’s not hard to imagine a club of Cabinet officials held in contempt of Congress.

A game of ping pong or a flaw in the system

But all this still does not rise to the level of a constitutional crisis, according to Jack Balkin, a Yale law professor who has written in depth about the term along with University of Texas professor Sanford Levinson. Democrats in Congress can go to the courts to have their subpoenas enforced, although Balkin said that is not an ideal path.

“The problem is that this will take a long time to litigate, and it may allow Trump to run out the clock,” he said in an email.

If, however, Trump started ignoring the courts, that would be a constitutional crisis, he said.

But Levinson said in an interview that the stalemate uncovers a flaw in the US system.

“It’s the Constitution itself that constitutes a crisis, because it sets up this byzantine system of separation of powers we often refer to as checks and balances that turns into a ping pong game without a definite end to it. The attempt of the Trump administration to run out the clock to keep the House from getting relevant information is part of the game,” he said.

Levinson added that an ultimate Supreme Court decision, if it is 5-4 and decided by the Republican majority, will do nothing to make people more confident in the system.

A crisis is when people are marching in the streets

At the same time, there is one very simple way to gauge a crisis.

“You know there’s a crisis when people are marching in the streets or you get some sense of potential disorder,” Levinson said, pointing out that “people don’t seem to be marching in the streets about this.”

In fact, just more than a third of Americans would like to see the President impeached, according to recent polls.

But impeachment, after all, is spelled out in the Constitution. Pelosi pointed out Tuesday that among the articles of impeachment prepared for Nixon was his failure to comply with congressional subpoenas. And impeachment proceedings would actually represent an example of of the US process working, since it is spelled out in the Constitution.

The problem for Democrats is that Republicans have circled around the President and the impeachment process has zero chance of removing Trump from office unless or until multiple Republican senators turn on him.

The opposite is happening.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who’s the Senate majority leader, said Tuesday on the Senate floor that in his mind the Mueller report was “case closed” since it didn’t find grounds for an indictment of Trump.

That led Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who’s running for president, to read portions of the Mueller report on the floor and accuse Republicans of abandoning the Constitution.

“Instead of protecting the Constitution, they want to protect the President,” Warren said. “This is a huge difference. At its core, in the Constitution, is the principle that no one is above the law, not even the President of the United States.”

The other problem for Democrats is that the law can move very slowly, and 2020 is right around the corner.

Congress can technically arrest people

There is not much for Congress to do if the executive branch decides not to comply with a subpoena. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, the typical remedy is to seek prosecution of an individual who does not comply with a subpoena. But the Justice Department is not likely to seek charges against a Trump administration official following his orders. Which leaves the Democrats in the House looking at a likely court battle, sure to be drawn out, to compel the administration to provide the tax returns or the Mueller report or even testimony.

There is another option. An archaic and recently unused avenue of “inherent contempt” would be for the House to authorize its sargeant-at-arms to detain an official who was not complying with a subpoena and then essentially try them in front of the House and imprison them until they comply with Congress’ wish.

In 1927, as a result of the Teapot Dome scandal, the Senate ordered its sergeant-at-arms to arrest an Ohio bank president, Mally Daugherty, who happened to be the brother of then-Attorney General Harry Daugherty. The Supreme Court ultimately upheld this course of action.

So Congress can, in theory, still arrest people. But the circumstances seem different here since the individuals in question – Barr, and maybe at some point Mnuchin, are Cabinet officials with federal protection.

That makes all this feel more like a stalemate than a crisis. And without overwhelming calls for impeachment or the aforementioned people marching in the streets, that’s likely where it’ll stay.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to attribute a quote about a possible Supreme Court decision to Sanford Levinson.