The House, correctly in my opinion, is not yet convening official impeachment hearings against President Trump. Instead it is, just as the Watergate-era Congress did, proceeding on a factual investigation to see (and illustrate for voters) what conduct Trump has participated in and why it is so serious.
Imagine, however, that instead of allowing John Dean and other witnesses to testify, the Nixon White House had barred all witnesses from testifying. Without such hearings, it would have been far more difficult to uncover the details of the coverup or even reveal the existence of a taping system (which came to light in July 1973, just over a year before the House Judiciary Committee voted on impeachment).
Suppose Nixon had gone further, denying Congress documents and witnesses on matters unrelated to Watergate? That’s the situation we are in now: Congress is conducting hearings to determine if impeachment hearings should even be convened, but Trump is blocking Congress from an unredacted version of the Mueller report (just as Nixon tried to block Congress from getting unedited tapes), hearing from witnesses and even proceeding with oversight on other matters.
Not wanting to be goaded into a premature decision on impeachment, Congress is trying to get into court to compel the administration to turn over materials the House deems necessary. The challenge is to move the issue along as expeditiously as possible so the pre-impeachment hearings can begin and we can hear from Robert S. Mueller III, Donald McGahn and others.
That brings us to Friday’s procedural news. The Post reports:
The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee on Friday endorsed the idea of bundling several contempt resolutions against people or entities affiliated with President Trump before having lawmakers vote on them — a sign that House Democrats expect to be stepping up their legal battles with the administration in the coming weeks.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) told reporters, noting that while such a vote would not happen in the next week, “it’ll be soon.”
“Given the unprecedented situation in which the administration’s essentially stonewalling all subpoenas — we’ve never had this before in American history so far as I know — it just makes sense to spend as little floor time as possible and do them together,” Nadler said.
If the subpoenas went as a batch to the floor, the House could decide to litigate them all together in court, getting a judge to impose contempt fines and to compel production of evidence. That would certainly make an impression on the courts and on voters as well.
We should note that at least one court considers production of documents related to House oversight of Trump’s possible wrongdoing to be urgent. In a case brought by Trump to stop production of financial records, one judge has decided to “fast track” the case:
U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta made his announcement Thursday in a brief notice to both sides after receiving a first round of written arguments in the case. The lawsuit was brought April 22 by Trump and several of his businesses against House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) and Trump’s accounting firm.
“The sole question before the court — Is the House Oversight Committee’s issuance of a subpoena to Mazars USA LLP for financial records of President Donald Trump and various associated entities a valid exercise of legislative power? — is fully briefed, and the court can discern no benefit from an additional round of legal arguments,” Mehta said.
The House, in bringing a whole batch of contempt citations all at once to a court, would make the case that the decision whether to impeach and whether to stop all congressional oversight is of such urgency — and here’s all the ways the president is stonewalling, the House would say — that the court should, like Judge Mehta, act expeditiously.
The media continues to describe the fight over the Mueller report and key witnesses as destined to move at a snail’s pace and therefore largely ineffective. Perhaps that’s not the case. If the House pulls all the contempt cases together and brings them to court for expeditious consideration, the matter might be resolved in months, not years. That’s the aim, at any rate.
It therefore behooves all the critical House oversight committees to issue subpoenas for necessary documents (Russia-related or not) so that contempt citations can be voted upon and the matters can move together to the courts. At stake would be nothing less than whether Trump can destroy Congress’s oversight power and avoid both indictment and impeachment (by gumming up production of necessary evidence) when serious wrongdoing may be at issue.
UPDATE: Another subpoena has been issued. The Post reports: “A House committee issued subpoenas Friday ordering Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettig to turn over President Trump’s tax returns by next Friday at 5 p.m. . . . Legal experts have said Mnuchin’s refusal to turn over the returns is unprecedented, noting a 1924 law explicitly gives lawmakers the authority to seek the records.”
The pattern of across-the-board obstruction could not be more evident.