THE CAPITAL last week was seized by the news that White House communications director Hope Hicks was leaving President Trump’s side, the latest senior aide to depart a tumultuous West Wing. But as a symbol of what is wrong in Mr. Trump’s Washington, Ms. Hicks’s activities just before her announcement were more potent.
Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, she refused to answer any questions about anything that happened after Mr. Trump was sworn in. She did not — indeed could not — invoke executive privilege, a power that only Mr. Trump can wield to prevent disclosure of information to Congress. But she refused to answer anyway, as though executive privilege properly applied.
A self-respecting legislative branch would not allow executive-branch witnesses to so easily evade basic questioning, particularly when it concerns matters as important as the Russia investigation. Executive privilege’s scope remains a matter of debate, and every episode in which it is used — or abused — sets a precedent. But past presidents have accepted boundaries on executive privilege that should not be eroded, acknowledging that the power cannot be used to obstruct legitimate investigations of possible illegal or unethical behavior within the executive branch. Accordingly, President Ronald Reagan declined to invoke it during the Iran-contra scandal. It is unjustifiable to use executive privilege when the White House communications director is asked about, say, the president’s involvement in crafting a deceptive public statement about his son’s infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting with a Russian lawyer — or, for that matter, her own role in the episode.
At the very least, executive privilege should not apply presumptively, an all-purpose gag on executive-branch officials that need not even be affirmatively invoked. When past presidents sought to prevent or limit disclosure, they typically either invoked executive privilege or worked out a deal with congressional investigators before taking that formal step. Now, top Trump administration officials are evading questions without the White House doing either.
The question is: Will Congress defend its prerogative as legitimate overseer of the executive branch? So far, the answer has been a dismal no. As The Post’s James Hohmann pointed out, Ms. Hicks’s behavior has not been isolated. Former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon was similarly uncooperative. Before the Senate this past June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions explained that he could not invoke executive privilege but that his refusal to answer certain questions protected “the right of the president to assert it if he chooses.” Even Corey Lewandowski, who never worked in the White House, was evasive.
Lawmakers at least followed up by subpoenaing Mr. Bannon, a step they failed to take with Ms. Hicks when she testified. But she is as deserving of a subpoena. Meanwhile, the House should move to hold Mr. Bannon in contempt for his continued foot-dragging, which would require the assent of Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.).
Republicans held Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in contempt when they were pursuing their trumped-up investigation of the “Fast and Furious” gunrunning scheme. Zealously defending the dignity of the legislative branch mattered to them when a Democrat was in the White House. And now?