President Trump’s decision to stonewall the House impeachment inquiry, on specious legal grounds that even one GOP lawyer called “bananas,” adds new urgency to the unfolding drama in Washington and casts the continued silence of senior congressional Republicans in an even harsher light.
After Tuesday, they’re no longer just ignoring the way the president tried to use foreign policy for his personal gain (which is scandalous enough). Now the president is clearly defying Congress, and seeking to create precedent that would allow any future president to skirt the system of checks and balances that has curbed presidential power for 230 years.
If Senator Mitt Romney of Utah really wants to marshal congressional GOP opposition to Trump, as some anti-Trump conservatives hope, he’s now got a powerful new reason.
In an astonishing letter sent Tuesday, the White House counsel said the president would not cooperate with the House probe or obey subpoenas related to the inquiry. The pretext was that the full House hadn’t formally authorized the impeachment inquiry triggered by his attempt to pressure the president of Ukraine into helping his reelection. But that’s a made-up requirement: The Constitution doesn’t require, or even mention, a preliminary vote before the House exercises its impeachment powers. It’s for the legislative branch to decide how it uses its powers, not the executive branch. The fact that Trump’s allies think the inquiry is a “witch hunt” or a “kangaroo court” is also immaterial.
Members of Congress are stewards of the institution, and of its role in the constitutional system. Regardless of party, they should be standing up for congressional prerogatives. But the president seems to have concluded that Republicans are so scared of crossing him that they will stay silent as he tries to chip away at the foundations of constitutional governance.
Not surprisingly, they sang a different tune when a Democrat sat in the White House. Over the last two days, Twitter has brimmed with old video clips from 1998, when a young Lindsey Graham argued that if a president failed to obey congressional requests for information, that was, in and of itself, grounds for impeachment. He had history on his side: One of the articles of impeachment drafted against Richard Nixon cited him for failing to “produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas” issued by a congressional committee. (Nixon resigned before the articles of impeachment could be approved.)
This time around, Democrats have made clear they also will interpret White House stonewalling as a form of obstruction. Republicans — even the ones who manage to find excuses for the president’s conduct in Ukraine call — should be outraged too.
The Constitutional system of checks and balances works only when each branch cares enough about its own responsibilities to exercise and defend them. Yes, it’s painful, and speaking up carries risk for both Republicans and swing-district Democrats. But history and precedent are being written, and Congress can’t let the president’s latest attack on the rule of law stand.