Part of what has distinguished the House’s impeachment drive against President Donald Trump is that its inquiry was not principally about a cover-up.
Unlike the scandals that prompted the previous two impeachments, the Ukraine affair was no “third-rate burglary,” nor was it an extramarital assignation in the Oval Office. The underlying accusation of wrongdoing against Trump—that he held up hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to a U.S. ally in a scheme to aid his reelection campaign—is of a different nature entirely.
Yet in the 300-page impeachment report released this afternoon, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee made clear that even here, Trump’s attempted cover-up of his alleged quid pro quo was just as bad as the earlier transgression. In detailing Trump’s flat-out refusal to comply with their investigation, Democrats effectively accused him of the worst case of presidential obstruction of Congress in the country’s history.
“Donald Trump is the first president in the history of the United States to seek to completely obstruct an impeachment inquiry undertaken by the House of Representatives under Article I of the Constitution, which vests the House with the ‘sole power of impeachment,’” the report states. “He has publicly and repeatedly rejected the authority of Congress to conduct oversight of his actions and has directly challenged the authority of the House to conduct an impeachment inquiry into his actions regarding Ukraine.”
“No other president,” it concludes, “has flouted the Constitution and power of Congress to conduct oversight to this extent.” In singling out Trump’s defiance, Democrats compare him unfavorably to Nixon, who, despite infamously refusing to hand over tapes from the White House’s secret recording system, instructed his staff to cooperate voluntarily with the impeachment inquiry that ultimately led to his resignation.
The Democrats’ focus on obstruction is neither new nor surprising. Immediately after launching the impeachment probe, the party made a crucial decision to largely abandon its attempts to compel the production of documents and witnesses from the administration through the courts; instead, they simply responded to each ignored subpoena by warning Trump and his aides that the refusal could be grounds for an obstruction charge. The move was an early sign that Democrats intended to move quicker than former Special Counsel Robert Mueller did in his two-year investigation into Russian interference in 2016 and would not allow the Trump administration to essentially run out the clock by forcing Democrats into court fights that would drag impeachment close to, or beyond, the 2020 election.
The report devotes dozens of pages to documenting each instance in which the administration withheld a requested document or blocked a witness from testifying. It also delivers on Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s promise to include, as part of its obstruction case, Trump’s attacks—verbally and via Twitter—on the officials who testified against him, which Schiff had characterized as witness intimidation.
Of course, Democrats also pointed out that the administration’s blockade did not succeed: Several current and former officials in the White House and the State Department cooperated with the inquiry despite the administration’s instructions not to, and their collective accounts, in private depositions, documents, and public testimony, provide the basis for nearly 300 pages outlining the Democrats’ core case against Trump.
The House and Senate will vote separately on individual articles of impeachment, and Democrats will try to appeal to Republicans by arguing, as they write in their report, that if left unanswered, Trump’s obstruction “risks doing grave harm to the institution of Congress, the balance of power between our branches of government, and the Constitutional order.” Still, Republicans have offered little indication that they are any more inclined to support an obstruction charge against Trump than they are to convict him based on his conduct toward Ukraine.
The likelihood of an obstruction impeachment charge is the culmination of a confrontation between two branches of government that began as soon as Democrats won control of the House in the midterm elections 13 months ago. Battles between Congress and the executive branch over proper legislative oversight go back to the beginning of the republic, but Trump turned a common skirmish into an all-out war by refusing at the outset to cooperate with any House investigations into either his own personal conduct or his administration’s policies. Indeed, Democrats are still weighing whether to expand their impeachment push to include articles specifically pegged to Trump’s obstruction of congressional oversight dating back to the beginning of the year, long before the Ukraine scandal erupted.
The president’s defiance of Congress has always been at the top of its list of grievances, just as his possible obstruction of justice was a focus of Mueller’s investigation as well. So while few could have predicted the precise circumstances that have put the Democratic House majority on the brink of impeaching this Republican president, the fact that their rap sheet will likely include a charge of obstruction may have been inevitable from the start.