“Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”
Donald Trump has been violating norms of presidential behavior and ethics since day one. But in the past few weeks a more ominous trend has become obvious: He is violating the law as well.
In August 2018, Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to secretly paying off — in violation of federal campaign finance laws -- two women with whom Trump was alleged to have been involved. He did so, Cohen testified under oath, “in coordination with and at the direction of” the president.
At the beginning of April, another allegation of Trump trying to break the law arose when CNN and the New York Times reported that the president had told Kevin McAleenan, the Customs and Border Protection commissioner who is now acting secretary of homeland security, not to admit refugees who have a legal right to apply for asylum. Trump reportedly promised to pardon McAleenan if he were imprisoned.
Then came the release of the Mueller report, which documented at least six incidents in which Trump’s conduct met all of the tests for obstruction of justice. Moreover, the report reveals that Trump on three occasions ordered the Justice Department to investigate his political rival Hillary Clinton. This may not be a violation of the law, but it is a perversion of justice that would certainly constitute an impeachable offense.
The House has responded to these and other revelations by stepping up its investigations. Trump and his administration have responded by showing their contempt for Congress and its lawful subpoena powers.
The Justice Department is refusing to share with Congress a fully unredacted version of the Mueller report along with the supporting evidence in defiance of a subpoena from the House Judiciary Committee. (Attorney General William P. Barr says he will let some members of Congress see a version with fewer redactions.)
Trump is suing the House Oversight Committee to block the subpoena it issued to his accounting firm for his business records.
The Treasury Department is refusing to comply with a request of the House Ways and Means Committee for Trump’s tax returns, even though the law says that it “shall furnish” them. White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Democrats will “never” see those returns, the law be damned.
Trump is refusing to let either former White House counsel Donald McGahn or former White House personnel security director Carl Kline testify before Congress, because he knows what they have to say could prove damaging: McGahn can testify about Trump’s attempts to fire Mueller and Kline about Trump’s demands that his son-in-law receive a security clearance over the objections of professional screeners.
The Justice Department won’t let a deputy assistant attorney general testify before the House Oversight Committee about the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 census.
The White House is refusing to comply with the House Judiciary Committee’s request for more information about whether Trump influenced the Justice Department’s decision to sue to block the AT&T/Time Warner merger.
If you’re counting at home, these are at least 15 instances of Trump either outright breaking the law or refusing to comply with the law. The president could order his subordinates to comply with congressional subpoenas. Instead, he tells them to stonewall.
Previous administrations have sometimes resisted congressional subpoenas. But no previous president has ever shown such widespread contempt for another branch of government. “We’re fighting all the subpoenas. These aren’t, like, impartial people,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “The Democrats are trying to win 2020.” No doubt the Obama administration also doubted the impartiality of a Republican-run Congress, but it nevertheless allowed Hillary Clinton to testify in 2015 for 11 hours about the phony Benghazi scandal.
Sadly, there is little that can be done to compel the president to obey the law. If the House cites officials for criminal contempt, the Justice Department will simply refuse to prosecute — as it did when the House cited then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. for contempt in 2012 for not turning over documents in the “Fast and Furious” gunrunning case. The House can sue to enforce its subpoenas, but that can take years. It was not until 2016 that a district court ordered the Justice Department to turn over the Fast and Furious information and appeals are still going on.
Trump can’t be indicted while in office and is unlikely to be indicted once he leaves. The only recourse the House has left, other than a symbolic censure resolution, is to impeach Trump. It’s almost as if Trump is trying to goad Democrats into doing just that, knowing he will never be convicted by a Republican-controlled Senate.
So the president is likely to get away with his lawlessness, at least for now, setting up the 2020 election as a referendum on whether we remain a rule-of-law republic. As Joe Biden said in announcing his presidential bid: “We are in a battle for the soul of this nation.” If Trump somehow bamboozles voters into giving him a second term, we will know that the worst fears of the Founders have been realized and our republic has been usurped by a lawless demagogue.