The meekness of Republicans in Congress during the Trump administration has gone a long way to allowing the demise of meaningful oversight of the executive branch. Since Democrats took over control of the House of Representatives in 2019, they have attempted to investigate the Trump administration on multiple fronts. The White House made clear from the start that it would try to stonewall these investigations and run out the clock. For the most part, it has succeeded. Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case where the House has attempted to obtain the president’s tax returns; it seems plausible that even if the House prevails, it will not get the returns before the November election.
Trump’s attorneys, including both his personal lawyers and, at times, the Justice Department, have advanced a sweeping and astonishing argument. In court, they have argued that these cases are not within the ambit of the judicial system, because the presidency enjoys privileges against ordinary prosecution; only Congress can exercise oversight.
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Yet when Congress has tried to conduct that oversight, Trump has objected and said it’s usurping prosecutorial authority. The White House counsel announced bluntly that it would not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, because it had unilaterally deemed it “illegitimate,” without offering any constitutional or legal standard. That earned Trump an impeachment count for obstruction of Congress, but the GOP-led Senate shrugged it off, along with the separate count of abuse of power.
The lesson Trump has taken from his Senate acquittal is that he doesn’t have to cooperate with Congress; at the worst, he can force the House to go to court, dragging out the oversight process to untenable length. In recent weeks, as the Democratic House has requested testimony from members of the administration’s coronavirus-response team, the White House has demurred, saying they are unavailable—though some were allowed to testify before the Republican Senate.
If Trump’s decimation of the inspectors general is allowed to stand—and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be—it will remove one of the last remaining checks on the executive branch. Trump has neutered Congress’s ability to conduct oversight, and even if he has not convinced the judiciary that it cannot be involved—indeed, some judges have laughed his attorneys out of court—he has managed to neuter it with foot-dragging as well. The inspectors general, as executive-branch officers with a conduit to Congress, were a remaining check, albeit a weaker one. This no longer seems true.
In practice, that leaves only one check on the executive branch: the ballot box. Voters can decide to eject a lawless president from office—but only every four years, and even then only after a first term: A second-term president would find himself without any accountability at all. It is almost impossible to reconcile this vision with the checks and balances laid out by the Founders, but what the Trump administration has found is, there’s no need to reconcile it. All it has to do is enact it.
During his confirmation hearings as attorney general, Barr acknowledged that a president could commit a crime. Working together with Trump, he’s just ensured that there’s very little chance a president would face any justice.