Waldman: This is the constitutional crisis we feared
For nearly three years, President Donald Trump’s critics have warned that there might come a point when we face a genuine constitutional crisis, one that threatens our very Democratic system. That constitutional crisis has arrived.
The White House this week released an extraordinary letter from White House Counsel Pat Cipollone to congressional Democrats, a document that will live on in infamy as evidence of how profoundly Trump corrupted the office of the president and everyone around him.
Despite the fact that it appears under the signature of the chief lawyer of the White House, the letter reads like some combination of a deeply misinformed seventh-grader’s social studies paper and a rant from Sean Hannity, randomly tossing around terms like “civil liberties” and “separation of powers” without any apparent understanding of what they mean.
Boiled down to its essence, the letter asserts that Trump is beyond the reach of oversight, of impeachment and of any checks and balances from the legislative branch. Because he thinks Congress is not treating him “fairly” (the word “fair” appears eight times in the letter), Trump has decided that he can issue a blanket refusal to “participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry.” All requests for documents and testimony will be rejected, and all subpoenas will be thrown in the trash.
To put this in context, there are regular disputes between Congress and the executive branch over particular subpoenas or other ways Congress exercises its oversight power.
“The executive rarely if ever is willing to give up everything Congress wants on the terms that Congress wants,” Professor Melissa Murray of New York University law school told me. But the usual procedure is that after some negotiation, “they reach some compromise that’s mutually acceptable. And when they can’t, they will then go to the courts.”
The White House, however, is not saying that they have legal grounds to refuse some particular request Congress has made. They don’t even make a claim of executive privilege. They say instead that the entire inquiry is unfair, and therefore they can reject all of it.
“If Congress cannot exercise its power of oversight or its power of impeachment, it essentially means the president doesn’t have to answer to anyone but the political process, which only comes around every four years,” Murray says. “And that essentially makes the president a king.”
I also spoke to Elizabeth Wydra, the president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, who agreed. The letter, she said, “has no basis in the Constitution, and its claims to wrap its partisan obstruction in the Constitution are outrageous.”
Wydra added that the blanket assertion that the White House will refuse to comply with “the most important constitutional check on executive misconduct — the impeachment process — that’s just unprecedented and extraordinary, and frankly has no place in a properly working constitutional democracy.”
Even Richard Nixon fought with Congress over particular subpoenas, such as for the Oval Office tapes that revealed his guilt, but didn’t claim that he was immune from honoring the entire impeachment process.
The fact that these claims are being made by the White House counsel, who is supposed to be the lawyer for the presidency, demonstrates how everyone around Trump is implicated in his corruption.