President Donald Trump last Tuesday lamented on Twitter that “in the ‘old days’ if you were President and you had a good economy, you were basically immune from criticism.” The next day, he complained that Congress members “only want to continue the Witch Hunt, which I have already won.” In an interview with The Washington Post, Trump said, “There is no reason to go any further, and especially in Congress where it’s very partisan—obviously very partisan … I don’t want people testifying to a party, because that is what they’re doing if they do this.” Meanwhile, Trump has filed a lawsuit to avoid handing over his tax returns to the House.
Trump’s defiance of Congress is outrageous and dangerous. It also exposes Republicans’ hypocrisy. There is a world of difference between how Republicans viewed oversight when Barack Obama was president and their support of Trump’s obstruction. I know, because for five years I worked for Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
In a 1957 Supreme Court ruling, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “The power of Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process. That power is broad … It comprehends probes into departments of the federal government to expose corruption, inefficiency, or waste.”
During my time on Oversight, the chief justice’s words were often cited as justification for our vigorous supervision of the Obama administration. Led by Representative Darrell Issa, my former boss, Republicans issued more than 100 subpoenas, held Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress, created a select committee to investigate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of the Benghazi crisis, and filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging President Obama’s use of executive privilege.
In 2011, we sent a letter to Secretary Clinton that stated: “The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is the principal oversight committee of the House of Representatives and may at ‘any time’ investigate ‘any matter’ as set forth in House Rule X.”
Also in 2011, when we suspected an effort to intimidate a witness called to testify at a hearing, Issa sent a letter warning the Obama administration that the “inappropriate effort to intimidate” and “discourage” someone from testifying before Congress was “an unlawful attempt to interfere with a Congressional inquiry.”
Yet when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin last week ignored a deadline to produce Trump’s tax returns, House Republicans refused to speak out against this blatant disregard for legislative authority.
And Republicans did nothing when the White House last week instructed an administration official to ignore a subpoena and not testify at a hearing regarding White House security-clearance procedures.
Contrast that with the time an IRS official refused to answer questions from Oversight Republicans—they held that official in contempt of Congress. During the contempt proceeding, Representative Jim Jordan, now the ranking Republican on the Oversight Committee, justified his vote in favor of contempt by saying, “The only remedy we have to get to the truth is to use every tool at our disposal” to get that official to “testify and answer the questions. That is the only remedy we have. The only route to the truth is through the House of Representatives.”
President Trump and Republicans complain about the pace of oversight; Trump declared on Twitter on Wednesday that “there has NEVER been a President who has been more transparent.” But the simple truth is that this White House is more obstructionist than the Obama White House, or any other White House, and Republicans are enabling this behavior.
During the two years that Trump’s presidency overlapped with the Republican majority in the House, Republicans issued a total of zero subpoenas to the Trump administration. To date, Trump has refused to cooperate with subpoenas issued by congressional Democrats.
Trump’s desire to shield his tax returns may provoke a constitutional standoff with Congress. He wants to slow the pace of oversight as much as possible, which means a long and tedious legal battle that will likely be decided by the Supreme Court. Trump is betting that the American people simply do not care whether or not he cooperates with congressional investigations. He’s betting that they do not have the attention span to follow a long court battle about constitutional authority. Trump believes that his stranglehold on the GOP is so tight that his flagrant disregard for checks and balances won’t matter to the Republican base or Republican elected officials.
He might be right.
The entire point of having separate but equal branches of government was to create protections against the kind of tyranny and absolute rule that was common in Europe. If Trump can simply ignore Congress and act unilaterally without consequence, then he is America’s first dictator.
This fight is bigger than one hearing or one investigation or one subpoena. It is a struggle to preserve the foundation of our republic. Republicans won’t rise to the challenge. Which means it’s up to Democrats to keep Trump in check, and to support the Constitution. They have to learn to confront Trump as aggressively as we confronted Obama.