Politics

Trump’s promise to resist oversight by Congress sets up clash that could last years

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President Trump speaks at an Atlanta summit on the opioid epidemic on Wednesday.
(John Amis / Associated Press)

President Trump vowed on Wednesday to fight a host of congressional efforts to scrutinize his conduct, business and policies, opening the path toward a constitutional clash that could last for the rest of his term or longer.

“We’re fighting all the subpoenas,” Trump told reporters, ascribing partisan motives to Democrats who control the House of Representatives and are eager to retake the White House in 2020.

“The only way they can luck out is by constantly going after me on nonsense,” he said.

The strategy fits Trump’s instincts to escalate fights, blow up precedent and push the limits of his authority. But it also strikes a contrast with his posture early in his term, when the White House quickly dispatched records and instructed staff to cooperate with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation.

Trump’s second thoughts about submitting to outside scrutiny appeared to grow as Mueller’s investigation continued, highlighted by his decision to refuse a sit-down interview with prosecutors or give complete answers to written questions.

Trump has been furious that the end of Mueller’s inquiry has not quieted concerns about his conduct, and he is showing himself ever more determined to assert his authority — even authority he may not have — to shut down efforts that could lead to his impeachment in the House, a step Democrats are openly debating.

He tweeted Wednesday that “if the partisan Dems ever tried to Impeach, I would first head to the U.S. Supreme Court.” The tweet seemed more emotional than tactical, since justices do not have authority under the Constitution to supersede Congress if it impeaches a president.

The court is more likely to weigh in if Trump continues to defy subpoenas issued to current and former administration officials. Presidents often clash with lawmakers from the opposing party who attempt to conduct oversight. But the sheer volume of investigations directed at Trump, combined with the aggressive nature of his resistance, could create a particularly combustible atmosphere.

“The president directing executive branch personnel simply to ignore oversight requests is remarkable,” said Elliott Williams, who previously worked in legislative affairs at the Justice Department and as a lawyer for the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We didn’t even see that with Richard Nixon, and that’s saying a lot.”

In addition to probing the findings of Mueller’s report and demanding an unredacted version of it, House Democrats are seeking Trump’s taxes, information on his business dealings, and testimony about the process for granting security clearances to officials including Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior advisor, over the objections of career staff.

Congressional committees are also reviewing ethical and policy concerns that filter into numerous Cabinet agencies, including Trump’s proposal to house migrants in so-called sanctuary cities.

Some of the Democrats’ efforts could lay the groundwork for impeachment proceedings. They’ve asked for reams of documents from dozens of witnesses to assess whether the president obstructed justice, acted corruptly or otherwise abused his power.

Trump’s latest comments were prompted by questions over whether he would fight a congressional subpoena issued to Don McGahn, his former White House counsel who served as a star witness for Mueller. According to Mueller’s report, McGahn resisted Trump’s pressure to fire the special counsel and subsequently to falsely deny he was asked to do so. At one point McGahn complained that the president wanted him to do “crazy shit,” the report said.

Trump called the subpoena “ridiculous,” while repeating his assertion that the Mueller investigation was a witch hunt conducted by people who hate him “with a passion.”

“Now we’re finished with it, and I thought after two years we’d be finished with it,” he said. “No. Now the House goes and starts subpoenas. They want to do every deal I’ve ever done.”

Though Trump argued during the inquiry that any investigation into his finances would constitute a red line, he said on Wednesday that he assumed Mueller had looked at all of his tax and financial documents. And though he was the first president in decades who has not released his tax returns, he misleadingly claimed that his financial documents have been widely seen by the public.

Trump and his company have also sued to block a subpoena for business records by saying it served no “legitimate legislative purpose.”

Democrats call Trump’s efforts to defy their oversight unprecedented and have been complaining for months about his lack of cooperation.

The U.S. Treasury missed a congressional deadline Tuesday to turn over Trump’s tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee, promising to respond further by May 6. Ways and Means and two other congressional committees have the authority to review individual tax returns under a law passed by Congress almost a century ago.

White House officials also directed Carl Kline, who oversaw the security clearance process, not to appear at a deposition, prompting the House Oversight Committee to consider contempt proceedings.

In another inquiry, Atty. Gen. William Barr is blocking a top official at the Justice Department from testifying about the administration’s decision to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, in response to a subpoena that all the Democrats and one Republican on the Oversight Committee approved.

“This is a massive, unprecedented and growing pattern of obstruction,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the committee chairman, said in a statement.

“Yesterday, President Trump declared to the entire country that he would obstruct Congress and order all White House officials to defy lawful subpoenas from Congress. Today, the Trump administration went even further by expanding this policy to employees at federal agencies — even when the subpoenas are bipartisan and supported by Republican members of Congress.”

Cummings has said the White House has refused to “produce a single piece of paper or a single witness in any of the committee’s investigations this entire year.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s resistance would only drag out the investigations.

When it comes to Russia-related matters, Schiff said, Congress needs to be “mindful of not wanting to reinvent the wheel” and repeat work already done by the special counsel. But he also said that Mueller “gives us a pretty good roadmap.”

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the Oversight Committee, said he wasn’t concerned about Trump’s criticism that Democrats would never be satisfied and were only interested in investigating, not legislating.

“This is the prevaricator in chief, who wants people like you to be distracted from the real underlying issues here,” he said. “I ignore it. We have a constitutional duty here.”

Democratic leaders have tried to keep the lid on talk about impeachment, but Connolly said that had become harder to do because of the Mueller report.

“It’s not something you can ignore. It’s deeply troubling,” he said. “Now we have to ask ourselves, what is our responsibility to the rule of law, to protecting the country against abuse of power?”

But even as Democrats stew, Trump’s stonewalling could work.

Fights over congressional subpoenas can grind on for years. When Republicans were investigating the “Fast and Furious” gun-tracking operation, they held then-Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt and sued for documents in 2012. The two sides eventually reached a settlement, but not until last year, three years after Holder left the Justice Department and two years after President Obama left office.