Over the past few days, Democrats have been warning with more and more urgency that the Trump administration’s response to an impeachment inquiry might represent obstruction of justice.
White House Counsel Pat Cipollone explained the administration’s view yesterday in a letter to House Democratic leaders. The missive sprawls over eight pages, but its message can be boiled down to just five words: You’re damn right we’re obstructing.
Since Democrats took control of the House in January 2019, the White House has pursued a strategy of noncooperation, trying to slow down any inquiries, tangle them up in often absurd litigation, and generally run out the clock on investigations before the 2020 election. Yesterday morning, the administration announced that it would block planned testimony to the House by Gordon Sondland, President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the European Union. The letter formalizes that strategy and promises total, massive resistance:
Given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the Executive Branch cannot be expected to participate in it. Because participating in this inquiry under the current unconstitutional posture would inflict lasting institutional harm on the Executive Branch and lasting damage to the separation of powers, you have left the President no choice. Consistent with the duties of the President of the United States, and in particular his obligation to preserve the rights of future occupants of his office, President Trump cannot permit his Administration to participate in this partisan inquiry under these circumstances.
Labeling each new destruction of precedent by Trump a constitutional crisis has become banal, but in its statement of total noncompliance, the letter may bring a crisis closer than any previous step by this president has. In its refusal to comply with what appear to most experts to be lawful congressional subpoenas, Trump is echoing President Richard Nixon’s refusal to turn over tapes to Congress during the Watergate proceedings.