Trump Destroys the Constitution

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler

We have talked for a long time about approaching a constitutional crisis; we are now in it; we are now in a constitutional crisis…. Now is the time of testing whether we can keep this type of republic, or whether this republic is destined to change into a different, more tyrannical form of government. — House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler, Democrat of New York, moments after the committee voted to hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress.

Representative Nadler is correct, expressing a sentiment later echoed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: The Republic is being tested. If President Donald Trump succeeds in denying Congress all documents pertaining to Russian interference in the American political system and the administration’s obstruction of the subsequent investigation, plus all materials relevant to Congress’ constitutionally sanctioned oversight responsibilities, then the nation will cease to be a democracy and become, instead, an autocracy.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declaring “case closed” on Russia investigation

Perhaps, most disturbing was Wednesday’s partisan vote in the House Judiciary Committee on citing Barr for contempt. Every Republican — all of them, without exception — voted nay, symptomatic of the supineness the party of Lincoln — the party that once saved the Union but which is now willing to undermine the essence of that Union. Rivaling the vote in the House Judiciary Committee for most disturbing was the pitiful performance by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who declared “case closed” on the Senate floor in a speech demanding Democrats end legitimate investigations. McConnell, who is only the second worst person in Washington, had the effrontery to blame President Barack Obama for not warning the public about “the dangers of Russian aggression,” an accusation that rewrites history. McConnell well knows that the Obama administration not only briefed Congress in the summer of 2016 on Russian interference, but sought a bipartisan statement about Moscow’s efforts, for fear that without Republican buy-in an administration warning would appear to be a partisan ploy on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. McConnell refused to sign the White House statement. 

There is no longer any doubt: All that matters to craven Republicans in Congress is doing Trump’s bidding because the opposite invites the electoral backlash of Trump’s roughly 35 percent base. So, winning reelection trumps principle. But winning for what? To serve in a Congress stripped of all power? To be an impotent member of an institution that is no longer a coequal branch of government? Because that is where the United States is headed, toward an autocratic regime headed by an all-powerful chief executive over whom neither of the other two branches of government have any control. When Trump finishes shredding the last vestiges of constitutional norms Congress will be reduced to 535 yes men and women with excellent salaries and a great benefits package, including a gym.

Military might buttresses American foreign policy

To be sure, the power of the Executive branch has been growing since the end of World War II. Part of that is due to the broader reach of the Federal government as a result of the New Deal saving the American capitalist system. The growth of the national government has given the president increased power to regulate the economy and other aspects of society, power willingly ceded by Congress. Even more important as a reason for the emergence of what has been called “the imperial presidency” has been the role the United States has played in international affairs since 1945. The Constitution grants the president broad authority in foreign affairs, but the isolationist policies of the United States through much of its history meant the chief executive had little room to flex his muscle. That changed during the Cold War when the two victorious superpowers — the United States and the Soviet Union — confronted each other, and it has continued after the fall of Communism, which left the United States as the only superpower.

Despite the inevitable concentration of power in the Executive branch, numerous administrations have consulted Congress and not sought to emasculate the House and Senate. That is, until now. The Trump administration clearly has no respect for the constitutional separation of powers, and its refusal to allow Congress to proceed with lawful investigations threatens the Madisonian concept of checks and balances. 

President Trump vows to stonewall all House subpoenas

Trump and his lackeys cite the actions of past administrations in refusing to turn over documents as a precedent. On March 5, Trump said, “President [Barack] Obama, from what they tell me, was under a similar kind of thing, didn’t give one letter. They didn’t do anything. They didn’t give one letter of the request. Many requests were made. They didn’t give a letter.” It is often difficult to determine where Trump gets his erroneous information, but he probably is referring to a congressional investigation — which led to a contempt of Congress citation for Attorney General Eric Holder — of the “Fast and Furious” gun trafficking scandal. The Obama administration asserted executive privilege to block some documents requested by Congress, but it turned over the vast bulk of the documents, many before Holder was cited for contempt.

Trump’s stonewalling is unprecedented. It is part of his strategy to thwart all congressional investigations because he has much to hide (not only on obstruction of the Russian investigation, but his personal business dealings). Since Trump has made clear his intentions not to cooperate, he leaves Democrats only one choice: Begin impeachment proceedings. Without the documents and without the testimony of witnesses, Congress cannot exercise its oversight responsibility. Impeachment becomes inevitable eventually, so why wait? As Speaker Pelosi said, “He’s become self-impeachable in terms of some of the things that he is doing.”  

Andrew Jackson

How does this end? Not well, given Trump’s refusal to play by the rules. If he will not abide by lawful and legitimate congressional subpoenas, Congress will have to turn to the courts. Will Trump heed an order from the Supreme Court to comply with congressional subpoenas? Who knows? All we do know is that Trump, so far, has been willing to wreck the nation’s institutions and overturn the rule of law in pursuit of his selfish interests. There is no reason to think an order of the Supreme Court will move Trump. As the president’s supposed hero President Andrew Jackson said in reference to a Supreme Court ruling, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.”

If Trump refuses to comply with a Supreme Court ruling, the United States will not be in a constitutional crisis because the Constitution will have ceased to exist. The nation will have, in the words of Representative Nadler, “a tyrannical form of government.”

Posted May 10, 2019

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