Once again, the Trump administration is defying House subpoenas, an ominous precedent that could erode congressional oversight of the presidency. Tempting as it is to suggest the House start ordering the arrests of Trump staffers — a real but problematic option — there are other paths House Democrats can and should take to compel testimony.
It would help establish Congress’ proper role in providing oversight of the president if congressional Republicans would start putting country before party, do their jobs and demand that the administration quit undermining the Constitution.
As every kid in civics class learns, but President Donald Trump apparently didn’t, the three branches of government are designed to provide checks and balances over one another. Congress is empowered to rein in rogue presidents through investigatory oversight and, if necessary, impeachment and removal. What is already known about Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine is, in itself, enough to merit the impeachment investigation now underway.
Congress appropriated nearly $400 million in military aid to help Ukraine resist Russian aggression. The administration withheld the delivery of that aid without explanation. Then, in a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump responded to Zelensky’s plea for the aid with, “I would like you to do us a favor, though” — then pressed him to investigate the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
This is virtually smoking-gun evidence that Trump endangered a U.S. ally and America’s national security to pressure foreign election meddling on his own behalf. That’s an impeachable “high crime” if there ever was one. Others may argue the evidence is inconclusive, but how is it possible to rationally argue, as House Republicans have, that these shocking circumstances don’t at least merit further investigation?
Inevitably, Trump has labeled the impeachment probe a “scam,” his catch-all pejorative for anything he doesn’t like. But that’s not a legal argument, and using it as an excuse to order administration officials not to comply with congressional subpoenas is outrageous because it implies the executive branch sees itself as above legal scrutiny. If all a president has to do to evade oversight is cry “scam,” then oversight ceases to exist.
In theory, the House could order its sergeant at arms to arrest those who ignore subpoenas — a move the administration would resist, inviting a constitutional crisis. When a sitting president couldn’t care less about the sanctity of the Constitution, Congress has a special duty to preserve it. The more responsible course would be to sue the absent witnesses in federal court. The House should.
And speaking of responsible courses: Regardless of whether they think Trump did anything impeachable, every member of Congress has a duty to defend the concept of congressional oversight. Yet almost no Republican members have protested as Trump has trampled all over that concept by declaring himself untouchable. Their silence isn’t just cowardly; it’s dangerous.