President Trump took his contempt for the rule of law to a new level Tuesday, declaring through the White House’s top lawyer that his administration would not answer any subpoenas, turn over any documents or cooperate in any way with the impeachment inquiry launched by House Democrats. By stonewalling Congress, Trump is once again asserting authority that he simply does not have under the Constitution.
In an eight-page letter to House leaders, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone complained that the House committees conducting the inquiry aren’t being fair because they’re not affording Trump the rights of a criminal defendant. Although the process unquestionably needs to be fair, impeachment isn’t a criminal trial — it’s more like the investigation that leads to a grand jury indictment. And in any case, the Constitution doesn’t let the president dictate the steps taken by the House, or by the Senate, which would determine whether to convict Trump if he were impeached by the House; it leaves it to each chamber to set its own rules and procedures.
Cipollone also asserted that the inquiry itself is illegitimate because it wasn’t authorized by a vote of the full House. But there’s no constitutional or statutory requirement to hold such a vote. The House did so in the past at least in part to give the committees conducting the investigation the power to subpoena testimony and records; now, however, House committees already have that power.
Let’s not kid ourselves here. This administration has routinely stonewalled House Democrats. Tellingly, a senior White House official said Tuesday that even if the House took every step Cipollone asked for in the letter, that would not guarantee the administration’s cooperation; the White House reserves the right to keep moving the goal posts.
The impeachment inquiry was triggered by a whistleblower’s complaint about a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to help investigate Joe Biden and Biden’s son. On its face, it looks like the president abused the power of his office to enlist a foreign government’s help in his reelection. Trump insists he did nothing wrong, and yet his administration is blocking the House’s efforts to get the full picture of what transpired.
If he has nothing to hide, why isn’t he cooperating? Presidents Nixon and Clinton and Andrew Johnson all turned over at least some of the documents and testimony sought by House investigators voluntarily; Trump has not.
We have argued that it would be better for the House to vote formally to hold the inquiry because it’s vital that the public perceive the process to be thorough and fair-minded, not rushed, partisan and predetermined. That’s a good reason for House Democrats also to be open to good-faith suggestions from the White House for how to determine the truth fairly and with an eye toward due process. Yet it’s hard to negotiate with a president who reneges on agreements, who has denounced every effort to hold him accountable for his actions as a “witch hunt” and who called the impeachment inquiry a “kangaroo court.”
The supreme irony here is Trump’s insistence that precedent dictates that the House must show him more deference. But honoring precedent isn’t a principle for Trump, it’s a flag of convenience that he raises only when it suits him. House Democrats should assure the public that the impeachment process has one goal only: to get to the truth. But the president does himself no favors by getting in the way.