What if the White House threw an obstruction party and no one came? Or perhaps more accurately, what if the White House threw an obstruction party and people came anyway?
Earlier this week, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone sent a lengthy rant to House Democrats, announcing that the administration would refuse to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. The letter rested largely on political, rather than legal, arguments, but Cipollone also invoked executive privilege to justify preventing executive-branch employees from testifying. It looked a lot like a declaration of constitutional crisis.
As the week closes, however, something strange has happened. The White House hasn’t changed its stance, but witnesses employed by the executive branch are coming to testify to House committees anyway. On Friday, Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who was recalled earlier this year, is giving a transcribed interview behind closed doors over State Department objections. Also on Friday, Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, signaled he would testify as well.
Suddenly the obstruction letter is looking a bit more like a Maginot letter: imposing in theory, impotent in practice. One of the leading narratives of the last three years has been that the guardrails thought to constrain the White House are not enforceable on a president with no shame. Yovanovitch and Sondland are illustrating a corollary: Trump’s insistence that his subordinates answer only to him is also unenforceable. A conspiracy of silence works only if people want to conspire.