It was reasonable to think that when Democrats swept the majority in the House of Representatives earlier this year, the American people would finally get what they were owed: accountability for President Donald Trump’s aggressive administration.
For the first two years of the Trump presidency, with Republicans in control of two branches of government, any hope of congressional oversight rested in the disinterested hands of then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Democrats in the minority lacked any authority to hold hearings or issue subpoenas, or enough votes pass legislation to place checks on the White House.
When Democrats picked up 40 seats in the House last November, many victorious candidates promised they would put a swift end to what author and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. famously dubbed the imperial presidency — that is, an administration that willfully detaches itself from any system of checks and balances.
Kevin Kruse, a history professor at Princeton University and outspoken critic of the current administration, was equally optimistic. “With Democrats now in control of the House of Representatives and the Mueller investigation seemingly coming to a conclusion as well, Mr. Trump will likely be held to account, in one form or another,” he and a colleague, historian Julian Zelizer, wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times. “But it’s important to remember that the ‘imperial presidency’ will outlive any one president unless more is done to institute real checks and balances on the office itself.”
Three months later, with the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report finally public and Democrats sitting atop powerful congressional committees, one thing is clear: the imperial presidency might be even harder to dismantle than many feared.
As it turns out, the mistake in assuming that Democratic lawmakers would finally have the power they needed to do their jobs was thinking their authority would be recognized by the White House.
Earlier this month, House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) formally requested the IRS turn over the past five years of Trump’s tax returns, long sought-after documents Trump has repeatedly refused to disclose himself. Federal law is unambiguous: Congress has the absolute right to request the tax returns of a sitting president.
Under normal circumstances, that would be the end of the story: the IRS complies, Democrats and the American people have an opportunity to finally see the extent to which Trump and his family are financially linked — or perhaps even indebted — to foreign investors, and oversight is finally achieved.
Instead, the White House has refused to comply. Chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told reporters the public would “never” see Trump’s tax returns, and this week Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Congress his department needed more time to assess the “lawfulness” of their request. It’s the second time he’s missed a deadline imposed by Congress.
The White House has similarly refused to comply with requests by Congress to allow administration officials to testify, and are now in open defiance of at least one subpoena, issued to former personnel security director Carl Kline to provide answers regarding senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner’s questionably obtained security clearance. The White House instructed Kline, who now works at the Defense Department, not to comply.
The White House has also telegraphed its intention to defy another subpoena, this one issued to former White House counsel Donald McGahn, whose name appears frequently in the Mueller report.
In an administration defined by scandal and lawlessness, Kruse has watched the last few weeks unfold with particular alarm.
“The refusal to turn over documents that have been subpoenaed, the refusal to appear before Congress, lawful congressional orders they’re just going to balk at — this is a real crisis moment for our constitutional system,” Kruse told ThinkProgress this week.
It is an unprecedented one, as well. Even at the height of administrative corruption during the darkest days of Watergate, the Nixon White House felt compelled to obey congressional oversight thanks in part to Republican lawmakers who put their constitutional duty above party loyalty. When officials in the Nixon White House were reportedly considering ignoring subpoenas, Congress threatened to hold them in contempt and have them arrested.
Similar threats have begun to surface out of this Congress as well, at least among Democrats. House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD), who issued the subpoena to Kline, said this week that he plans to schedule a vote to hold Kline in contempt, further escalating tension between Congress and the White House.
So alarming is the White House’s cavalier approach to congressional authority that even some of its staunchest Republican allies on Capitol Hill are beginning to apply pressure on behalf of the legislative branch.
On Friday, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, sent a letter to the White House urging officials to allow Kline to appear before the committee, in accordance with the subpoena issued by Congress. Even so, Republicans — Jordan included — have opposed any effort to hold hearings into the findings of the Mueller report, which detailed no fewer than 10 instances of possible obstruction of justice involving Trump.
Whether or not other Republicans recognize the serious jeopardy in which they are placing the nation’s foundational system of checks and balances by capitulating to the whims of the White House is the central question.
“If Congress and the courts refuse to apply any oversight, all that is going to do is encourage [the White House] to continue this behavior,” Kruse said.
“Much of our system has worked on the assumption that people don’t want to violate the norm,” he added.
In this White House, where nothing is normal, there is no way to assume.