After special counsel Robert S. Mueller III filed his report on his investigation into possible ties between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia, the president hailed the report as a “total exoneration.” His attorney general has since released a redacted version of the document, which elicited a similar reaction from Trump. But now that Democrats in Congress are seeking to gain a fuller understanding of Mueller’s reasoning — including why the special counsel reached no decision about whether Trump obstructed justice — the White House is stonewalling.
On Wednesday, hours before the House Judiciary Committee voted to hold Atty. Gen. William Barr in contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena for an unredacted version of Mueller’s report, Trump, following Barr’s advice, asserted “protective” executive privilege in connection with the report and its underlying evidence. The administration already had moved to prevent former White House counsel Don McGahn from fully cooperating with the committee. And earlier, Trump tweeted that “Bob Mueller should not testify” before Congress.
The invocation of executive privilege, even on a preliminary basis, is hard to justify. By allowing McGahn to talk to Mueller’s investigators, Trump in effect waived any privilege. Congress should be free not only to question McGahn about what he told Mueller (including his sensational assertion that Trump directed him to have Mueller removed), but also to seek documents from him.
The administration suggested that executive privilege might attach to other documents that made their way to Mueller. But if that’s the case why didn’t officials assert the privilege earlier?
The administration’s resistance to congressional requests related to the Mueller report comes against the backdrop of a larger contempt by this president for the separation of powers. Trump has made it clear that he doesn’t believe he has to provide information to the House because it is now controlled by Democrats. “We’re fighting all the subpoenas,” he said last month. “Look, these aren’t like impartial people. The Democrats are trying to win 2020.”
Obviously Democrats are motivated to some degree by a quest for partisan advantage, as are the congressional Republicans who continue to cover for Trump, and some of their requests seem excessive. But that doesn’t give the president the right to ignore requests for information and testimony to which Congress is entitled. That includes information about whether Trump might have obstructed justice — whether or not Congress seeks that information as part of a formal impeachment inquiry.
It isn’t just partisan Democrats who have remarked on this administration’s stubborn refusal to respect Congress’ prerogatives. Even John Yoo, the conservative Berkeley law professor who served in the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration, told the New York Times that Trump was “treating Congress like they’re the Chinese or a local labor union working on a Trump building.”
Whether rooted in self-protection or hubris, Trump’s defiance of Congress is dangerous. And by resisting meaningful congressional oversight across the board, the president undercuts any argument he might make that Congress should compromise with the White House in seeking particular information. Absolutism begets absolutism.
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