Reporters know what to do. If it’s a feature story, a human interest thing, for the top left of the front page, set the scene. Be cinematic or novelistic. Describe the landscape and then introduce the colorful main characters. Hook the reader, and then get to the main point ten or twelve paragraphs in. Ease into the story and then get serious. But if it’s a hard news story, for the top right of the front page, do the reverse. Open with the facts – what happened – up top. That’s the point. Save the details for later – for those who want to know the who and the why of matters. There are such people, but not that many. The main point will do for most readers. They’ll turn to MSNBC or Fox News for the who of this and the why of that. But the facts won’t change. Certain things happened.
And it was one of those days – Wednesday, May 8, 2019 – when all hell broke loose in Washington. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to know how the government works, or he really doesn’t care how the government works, so this day was coming. The Los Angeles Times had Chris Megerian on the story. He compressed that explosive day into four short paragraphs:
Tensions between the White House and Congress boiled over Wednesday after President Trump asserted executive privilege to block release to lawmakers of the special counsel’s unredacted report, and a House committee voted to hold Atty. Gen. William Barr in contempt.
The high-stakes brawl marked a major escalation of a legal and political fight that has few parallels since the Watergate era. The disputes are almost certainly headed to court.
“We’ve talked for a long time about approaching a constitutional crisis,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said after the contempt vote. “We are now in it.”
Adding to the turmoil, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee has issued a subpoena to Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, as part of its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
And that was that. Trump said he’d not cooperate with Congress in any way. Nadler said he had to. All the Democrats said he had to. They pointed out that the Constitution said he had to. He said “make me” – so now it’s contempt of Congress and endless subpoenas. He laughs at that. Why does that matter to him? Who is going to enforce any of that, the justice department? He owns the justice department. Attorney General Barr is his man. And will the Democrats take him to court? He has said his Supreme Court will protect him. And if they don’t and tell him to honor the subpoenas and turn over the documents, he can decide not to do that. What could they do then? He has the Army. The Supreme Court’s got bupkis.
Donald Trump’s got this covered, and that’s a constitutional crisis if there ever was one. Congress has no real power. Forget what the Constitution “says” – Congress never had real power, and they certainly cannot impeach a president who can easily keep any possible evidence of any wrongdoing from them just by saying no, you cannot have that, and so the day closed with this:
The House Intelligence Committee jumped into the fray, subpoenaing Barr to hand over all counterintelligence and foreign intelligence materials produced by the Mueller probe as well as the unredacted report and underlying materials.
The Justice Department “has responded to our requests with silence and defiance,” tweeted Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the committee chairman. “Congress needs the material. We will not be obstructed.”
Yeah, right. He’s already been obstructed. What’s he going to do about that? What can he do about that? But all of this was nicely theatrical:
The day’s dramatic events began when the White House said Trump had asserted executive privilege – for the first time since he took office in 2017 – to block release to Congress of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s unredacted report and evidence.
Hours later, the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee voted to hold Barr in contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena to hand over the material. The 24-16 vote was along party lines.
If the full House approves the resolution, Barr will be the nation’s second top lawman to face that sanction.
And then that good reporter, Chris Megerian, drops in the facts of the matter:
In 2012, Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. became the first sitting Cabinet member to be voted in contempt by the GOP-controlled House in a battle over access to Justice Department records on a failed gun-tracking operation called “Fast and Furious.” The legal battle lasted for years after Holder left his position.
“We still don’t have all the documents,” said Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) – a reminder of how such disputes rarely have tidy or timely ends.
Good reporters can be depressing, and these arguments can be depressing too:
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that Trump had “no other option” but to assert executive privilege to counter what she called Nadler’s “blatant abuse of power.”
The White House previously threatened to invoke executive privilege to restrict testimony on Capitol Hill by former officials, but the letter marked Trump’s first formal assertion of the legal principle that allows presidents to keep private communications with advisors.
Mueller’s report relies heavily on interviews with current and former senior staff in the White House, most notably former chief counsel Donald McGahn. The White House had allowed them to speak with the special counsel’s office and did not assert executive privilege over the redacted report that was released to the public on April 18.
The argument here is that Trump waived “privilege” about McGahn long ago. He told him to talk to Mueller. He did, Mueller took notes, and Trump didn’t block the public release of Mueller’s redacted report. It’s all public record now. Trump’s people are arguing that Congress cannot ask McGahn or any of the others about what is now a matter of public record.
What? Megerian adds detail here:
Experts said the contempt resolution and the executive privilege claim underscored how quickly relationships had deteriorated between House Democrats and Trump, who has pledged to fight “all the subpoenas.”
“Usually you negotiate for months and months,” said John Yoo, a UC Berkeley law professor who has worked for the Senate Judiciary Committee and President George W. Bush’s Justice Department. “They’re immediately going to the walls of their castles, and they are quickly escalating.”
It did get nasty:
In addition to battles involving the Russia investigation, Democrats have accused the Trump administration of stonewalling their inquiries into the president’s taxes and handling of security clearances for several White House aides, including Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
“What is the Trump administration hiding from the American people?” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) during the Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday. “Because the administration is not just stonewalling this committee. They’re stonewalling every committee’s request for information.”
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the committee’s top Republican, said Democrats were seeking more documents because they were unhappy that Mueller didn’t find a case for impeaching the president.
This will not end well, given details like this:
Republicans also said Barr was following the law by refusing to turn over the unredacted report, which includes grand jury evidence that is required to be kept under wraps. As the Judiciary Committee hearing began, the Justice Department released a letter from Assistant Atty. Gen. Stephen Boyd to Nadler that said Trump was making a preliminary claim of executive privilege.
They pointed to Boyd’s letter to Nadler, which said Barr “could not comply with your subpoena in its current form without violating the law, court rules, and court orders, and without threatening the independence of the Department of Justice’s prosecutorial functions.”
Nadler disagreed, saying he wanted to work with Barr to ask a judge for permission to have access to the grand jury material.
That’s done all the time. Ask for an exception to get the grand jury details. Those exceptions are granted all the time. Barr says he won’t ask. He never will, not on this, ever. Nadler says he should. It’s done all the time, and that is not breaking the law. But now it is of course. Things have spun out of control. Those are the facts of the matter.
And as for the president’s son:
Mueller’s office had considered charging Trump Jr. with violating campaign finance laws for accepting a meeting in June 2016 with a Kremlin-tied lawyer who, he was told, would provide incriminating information on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Prosecutors ultimately decided they had insufficient evidence.
Trump Jr. also faced scrutiny for his role in secret election-year efforts to build a luxury skyscraper in Moscow, a proposal that was abandoned after Trump secured the GOP nomination.
The subpoena by the Republican-led committee, first reported by Axios, put Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in an awkward position. On Tuesday, he declared “case closed” on the Russia investigation and urged Congress to move on.
That is embarrassing. It’s all embarrassing. And it’s self-defeating:
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that President Trump is “becoming self-impeachable,” pointing to his efforts to fight all subpoenas from congressional investigations and prevent key aides from testifying before Congress.
“The point is that every single day, whether it’s obstruction, obstruction, obstruction – obstruction of having people come to the table with facts, ignoring subpoenas… every single day, the president is making a case…”
She doesn’t want to go for impeachment, which would tear the country apart, but she may have no choice:
It was not immediately clear what she meant by “self-impeachable.” The House speaker has resisted calls by some members of her party to pursue impeachment proceedings against the president.
On Tuesday, she made a similar argument about Trump’s actions, comparing him to President Richard M. Nixon. She noted that one of the articles of impeachment against Nixon was that he ignored congressional subpoenas.
“That could be part of an impeachable offense,” Pelosi said of Trump at Tuesday’s event, which was hosted by Cornell University. “Every day, he’s obstructing justice by saying, ‘This one shouldn’t testify, that one shouldn’t testify,’ and the rest. So he’s making a case. But he’s just trying to goad us into impeachment.”
Perhaps so, but E. J. Dionne sees a group effort:
The House should not have to move quickly toward impeachment, but it may now have little choice.
And let’s be clear: The prime mover in all this, who is perfectly happy to wreck our institutions to serve his own selfish interests, is President Trump. But we would not be courting chaos if Republicans in the House and Senate had not abandoned their commitments to fact and accountability in their zeal to help the president escape the consequences of his actions.
So shift the focus:
The week’s most important event was thus not Wednesday’s House Judiciary Committee vote holding Attorney General William P. Barr in contempt, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s craven, reckless partisanship in declaring “case closed” on Trump.
He said this despite special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report describing so many instances of obstruction of justice that nearly 800 former federal prosecutors signed a letter declaring that were Trump not president, the findings would lead to “multiple felony charges.” Case closed?
The report also detailed at least 140 contacts with Russian nationals and WikiLeaks, or their intermediaries, by Trump and 18 of his associates, as the New York Times reported. We are not supposed to care about this? Case closed?
In short, Mitch has done more harm than Donald:
In his acidic soliloquy on Tuesday, McConnell had the shameless audacity to blame President Barack Obama for Russia’s interference when it was McConnell himself who resisted the intelligence community’s findings about Russian meddling before the 2016 election. McConnell also led GOP efforts to block a bipartisan statement Obama sought that would have given the country some warning about what Vladimir Putin’s agents were doing. McConnell’s only consistency is his party-before-country commitment to protecting Trump.
And now the rest of these people are no better:
There are Republicans who purport to care about more than Trump’s well-being and comfort. With McConnell clearly all-in on the president’s twisting of the law and flouting of Congress’s legitimate authority, Republican senators who claim to care about the Constitution need to speak up. And they should do so now, not after they have had weeks or months to put their fingers to the wind. Where are Sens. Cory Gardner, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, Martha McSally, Joni Ernst and Thom Tillis? Any four of them could join with Senate Democrats to begin building a Coalition for Accountability.
But don’t expect that, given this:
It should be astounding that Republicans want to investigate FBI officials – a goal pressed during the Judiciary Committee debate by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) – for daring to do their jobs investigating the Trump campaign’s potential Russian ties. But what’s more astonishing is that we are no longer surprised that members of Trump’s party would undercut work aimed at protecting our democracy from intrusion by a hostile foreign power to aggrandize a scam artist…
Protect Trump. Protect Putin. It comes down to the same thing, and no choice:
With Republicans cheering on Trump’s campaign to block Congress’s access to witnesses and documents, House Democrats have fewer and fewer options short of impeachment to establish that the rule of law still exists.
But they didn’t start this:
We don’t know if Trump longs for impeachment to rally his supporters. What we do know is that he and his party are unwilling to make the substantive accommodations to transparency that would avert an all-out political war. If it comes to an impeachment battle, the president and the GOP will have fired the first shots.
Who can and will fire back? Greg Sargent sees one 2020 Democratic candidate ready for that now:
Is President Trump an aberration whose defeat in 2020 would allow the nation to begin rebounding toward normalcy? Or does his ascendance reflect long-running national pathologies and deeply ingrained structural economic and political problems that will intractably endure long after he’s gone?
The answer to this question – which has been thrust to the forefront by the Democratic presidential primaries – is, in a sense, both. Trump represents both a continuation of and a dramatic exacerbation of those long running pathologies and problems.
As of now, Elizabeth Warren appears to be the Democratic candidate who most fully grasps the need to take both of those aspects of the Trump threat seriously.
She was the one who stood up and said impeach that man and the system:
In an important moment on the Senate floor on Tuesday, Warren took strong issue with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s profoundly cynical effort to treat this all as a closed matter. “Case closed,” McConnell said, speaking not just about Mueller’s extensive findings of likely criminal obstruction of justice by Trump but also about Trump’s eagerness to reap gain from Russia’s sabotage of our elections, which McConnell blamed on Barack Obama.
In response, Warren again called for an impeachment inquiry, but she did more than that: She indicted the Republican Party as a whole for shrugging off Trump’s epic misconduct and wrongdoing.
Warren has also pointed out more forcefully than any rival has that Trump tried to derail an investigation not just into his own campaign’s conduct, but also into the Russian attack on our democracy – which Trump has refused to acknowledge happened at all, hamstringing preparations for the next attack.
As McConnell’s speech showed, the GOP is all in with that as well. And the GOP appears all in with Trump’s escalating efforts to treat House oversight of the administration as fundamentally illegitimate.
Warren will have none of that:
Warren’s call for an impeachment inquiry is linked to a big argument – one broader than that of any other candidate – about how the GOP has actively enabled Trump’s authoritarianism, lawlessness, shredding of governing norms and embrace of the corruption of our political system on his behalf.
Warren is comprehensively treating Trump both as a severe threat to the rule of law in his own right, and as inextricably linked to a deeper pathology – the GOP’s drift into comfort with authoritarianism.
And there is a link:
Trump’s authoritarianism and his corruption are two sides of the same coin. Trump’s tax returns, which he rebuffed a House request for – something his government participated in, with dubious legality – may conceal untold levels of corruption, from possible emoluments-clause violations to financial conflicts to compromising foreign financial entanglements.
Warren has responded to all this – and the GOP’s near-total comfort with it – by rolling out a sweeping anti-corruption measure that requires presidential candidates to release tax returns and requires divestment to avoid such corrupting situations in the future.
Thus, Warren is treating this two-sided coin of authoritarianism and corruption as a systemic problem in need of reform, one linked to the broader imperative of actually “draining the swamp,” as Trump vowed, only to plunge into full-scale corruption himself.
She wants more than impeachment. She wants to clean it all up. Trump, however, just wants to be impeached, in the House, because Mitch McConnell’s Republican Senate would never convict Donald Trump of anything at all, and then Trump would be be an even bigger hero to his base – the sneering strongman no whining liberal fools could touch, no matter what he did. Of course he’s self-impeachable. He was made for this.