The Perils of an Unstable Executive Branch

Congress has a responsibility to set aside partisanship and steer the country through a dangerous moment rife with uncertainties.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

Republicans understandably want to use the GOP’s control of Congress and the White House to pass the domestic agenda Paul Ryan has spent years crafting. If the executive branch wasn’t such a mess they could focus on that project with a clear conscience.

Instead, Ryan and his colleagues confront an inconvenient reality: The Constitution charges them with adequately overseeing the executive branch. And right now, either the Trump administration is unduly influenced by murky, possibly illegal ties to Russia, or members of the bureaucracy are spreading misinformation to undermine a democratically elected leader, or both are happening.

This is a perilous moment for the American republic.

For good reason, millions of Americans are fearful. Ongoing uncertainty about these events is eroding faith in democratic institutions that were already worryingly brittle, in a polity where many were already anxious, angry, and polarized. And even those most intent on avoiding a crisis disagree about the best course.

John Podhoretz observes that “already pro-Trump voices on the right are calling the leaks that led to Michael Flynn’s firing evidence of an attempted coup d’etat. The fevered use of such terms is part and parcel of the way in which social media amplifies the melodrama of daily news stories. I am myself unnerved by the evidence of high-level lawlessness in the Flynn matter, but a ‘coup d’etat’ refers specifically to a military ouster of a leader, not a leak-driven campaign using the press to nail someone.”

He worries,

This is sure to persist, though, if the Flynn-Russia matter accelerates—and if the reluctant House and Senate do begin investigating the matter in earnest. If the language surrounding the investigation remains florid and purple, if Democrats try to please their Trump-hating constituents by screaming impeachment and liberal media tries to garner audience by jumping openly and vociferously on the bandwagon, the Trumpians will respond in kind by stirring the pot through their media and their argumentation.

The result might well be violence. Not rhetorical violence. Actual violence. Actual political violence. Actual conflicts between anti-Trumpers and Trumpers. At demonstrations. In the streets. Of our cities. Political violence of a sort we haven’t seen in 50 years, and maybe haven’t really seen in this country in the modern era. Those who believe Trump is a unique menace whose threat to our democratic way of life will be met with those who believe the elites are using illicit means to oust the legitimately elected president. This is not a fantasy. This is one possible future. And every rational person who cares about the future of the country should be mindful of it, and should work to forestall it.

The counsel to forestall conflict that might spiral out of control is prudent, and I too dread how congressional investigations could play in polarized social-media channels. Yet, I worry as much about Congress abdicating its oversight role. What if a credible accounting of the truth is the course most likely to forestall crisis and congressional fact-finding is best positioned to produce that account? In its absence might the executive branch continue its dangerous dysfunction, with an erratic president, competing factions of backstabbing aides, and alarmed intelligence professionals continuing to fight via alternative accountings?

Noah Millman thinks so.

Thus he wants an investigation. “I completely understand why a Republican Congress would be reluctant to do this,” he writes at The American Conservative. “There’s not only the risk that they’d cripple their own party’s presidency; there’s the very real risk of retaliation by the Trump administration, and the President taking steps to mobilize his supporters against members of Congress that threaten him.”

Nevertheless, “it looks like major elements within the national security bureaucracy are prepared to create a constitutional crisis in response to what they believe is a serious and real threat to American national security from the White House itself,” he argues. “And there is really only one way to avoid such a crisis: for Congress to step up and begin the necessary investigations of the Trump administration.” If Trump and his senior team is cleared of wrongdoing, they’ll be able to govern all the better without the strong appearance of corruption clouding them while a bureaucracy spreads lies in order to undermine their actions. If Trump or his team did coordinate on the DNC leaks, or are otherwise beholden to Vladamir Putin or Russian financial actors, what’s more urgent than knowing?

So far, most Republican legislators are averse to seeking the whole truth.

“House and Senate Republicans are following President Trump's lead by demanding investigations into the damaging leaks that have been pouring out of the federal government since President Trump took office,” the Washington Examiner reports. But investigating leaks alone won’t tell us if the White House is compromised or if the Deep State is misleading the public into thinking it is compromised.

All we can say for sure, before being apprised of the true story that eventually outs, is that the White House’s current story doesn’t hold together, as Jake Tapper illustrates:

And their handpicked investigator will never be seen as credible.

To go deeper into the weeds of unanswered questions about Mike Flynn’s resignation, see Jack Goldsmith’s list. For a compelling case that Flynn’s civil liberties were abused, read Timothy Edgar, who also thinks Flynn was dangerous in office.

I do not know the best course. I do know that guarding against a constitutional crisis is far more important than any item on the House GOP’s domestic agenda. The patriotic course would be to postpone premeditated agendas, like George W. Bush did after 9/11, and Barack Obama did during the financial crisis, when national stability required it.

And the executive branch is as unstable as it has ever been.