Cri­sis point? High stakes in Trump’s show­down with Congress

The News-Times - - NATION / WORLD -

WASH­ING­TON — Democrats call it a “con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis.” But is it?

Stunned by the ex­tent of the White House’s blan­ket re­fusal to com­ply with over­sight by Congress, the Democrats warn that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is shat­ter­ing his­toric norms and test­ing the na­tion’s sys­tem of checks and bal­ances in new and alarm­ing ways.

It’s not just the House’s fight with the Jus­tice De­part­ment over the re­lease of spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller’s report. The stand­off in­volves Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s un­will­ing­ness to en­gage with dozens of Capi­tol Hill probes of his tax re­turns, po­ten­tial busi­ness con­flicts and the run­ning of the ad­min­is­tra­tion — from se­cu­rity clear­ances for his fam­ily to ac­tions he has taken on his own on im­mi­gra­tion.

It’s a con­fronta­tion that’s only ex­pected to deepen now that Mueller’s work is fin­ished and the in­ves­ti­ga­tion’s fo­cus shifts to Capi­tol Hill.

Trump de­rides the probes as “pres­i­den­tial ha­rass­ment.” Repub­li­can Se­nate leader Mitch McCon­nell tries to de­clare it all “case closed.” But Democrats warn that with­out the leg­isla­tive branch stay­ing on the case, keep­ing watch, any ex­ec­u­tive be­comes more like a “monar­chy” — or “tyranny” — that doesn’t have to an­swer to the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of all Amer­i­cans.

“Will the ad­min­is­tra­tion vi­o­late the Con­sti­tu­tion and not abide by the re­quests of Congress in its le­git­i­mate over­sight re­spon­si­bil­i­ties?” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked Thurs­day.

“Ev­ery day they are ad­ver­tis­ing their ob­struc­tion of jus­tice,” she said. “We’re not talk­ing about iso­lated sit­u­a­tions. We’re talk­ing about a cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect of ob­struc­tion the ad­min­is­tra­tion is en­gaged in, and the pres­i­dent has warned that he is not go­ing to honor any sub­poe­nas from Congress.”

Strug­gles be­tween the ex­ec­u­tive and leg­isla­tive branches are noth­ing new. The House voted to hold Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials in con­tempt over an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the fir­ing of U.S. at­tor­neys. Barack Obama’s at­tor­ney gen­eral, Eric Holder, was found in con­tempt over an un­der­cover gun-run­ning op­er­a­tion.

But those were spe­cific cases. The dif­fer­ence, say his­to­ri­ans and le­gal schol­ars, is that Trump has an­nounced he will es­sen­tially ig­nore all over­sight re­quests from Congress.

Con­gres­sional ex­perts say a big risk is set­ting a prece­dent that goes way be­yond Trump. What hap­pens, for ex­am­ple, if an ad­min­is­tra­tion stonewalls Congress on in­for­ma­tion it wants for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of air or water qual­ity rules — or any­thing else? Can the White House just say no?

“We have a big prob­lem,” said Ju­lian E. Zelizer, a Prince­ton Univer­sity pro­fes­sor who stud­ies his­tory and pub­lic af­fairs.

Trump’s new stance, at the end of the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion, comes as the pres­i­dent faces a di­vided Congress for the first time. Democrats talked of be­ing a check on him when they took con­trol of the House in Jan­uary, up­set­ting the calm he en­joyed dur­ing two years of friend­lier re­la­tions with Repub­li­cans in charge of both cham­bers.

Zelizer said with Trump “ag­gres­sively flex­ing power to shut down over­sight ca­pac­ity of an­other branch,” it’s “un­clear who and how this is re­solved, es­pe­cially with Se­nate Repub­li­cans stand­ing by their man.”

Asked if this is a con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis, Zelizer said, “I think we are look­ing at one.”

Jack Balkin, a Yale Law School ex­pert on the Con­sti­tu­tion, won’t go that far, but he said the Democrats are de­scrib­ing a real prob­lem.

“There is a break­down in con­sti­tu­tional norms that keep the repub­lic go­ing,” Balkin said. “In an or­di­nary world, you just have ne­go­ti­a­tions over sub­poe­nas. It hap­pens all the time. Congress and the pres­i­dent work it out.”

Af­ter talks broke down this week be­tween the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee and the Jus­tice De­part­ment over the panel’s sub­poena for the full Mueller report, the com­mit­tee voted to rec­om­mend that At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Barr be held in con­tempt of Congress.

While there’s no di­rect over­sight writ­ten in the Con­sti­tu­tion, the House his­tor­i­cal web­site says it’s im­plied in Ar­ti­cle 1 that gives Congress “all leg­isla­tive pow­ers,” with in­ves­ti­ga­tions in­tended as a way to seek necessary in­for­ma­tion for that pur­pose.

Un­der­scor­ing that, the Supreme Court ruled nearly 100 years ago that “the power of in­quiry — with process to en­force it — is an es­sen­tial and ap­pro­pri­ate aux­il­iary to the leg­isla­tive func­tion.”

Saikr­ishna Prakash, an ex­pert on pres­i­den­tial power at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, said he doubts that Trump will carry out a to­tal re­fusal to par­tic­i­pate in con­gres­sional over­sight.

“If you want to have an over­sight hear­ing on EPA and a clean water rule, they’re prob­a­bly go­ing to send some­one,” Prakash said. “The pres­i­dent doesn’t care about that. He cares about the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion and ob­struc­tion, and he cares about an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into his per­sonal fi­nances.”

The pres­i­dent’s ad­vis­ers say part of Trump’s strat­egy is to slow-walk his le­gal bat­tles with Congress in court, see­ing an ad­van­tage for the 2020 cam­paign. His pub­lic ar­gu­ments are more po­lit­i­cal than le­gal: He por­trays the Democrats as “un­hinged.”

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