But this is different. The president is asserting autocratic authority to ignore the people’s elected representatives and the Constitution that governs them. This is a new stage in an already dangerous presidency.
The letter, astonishingly signed by an individual with a law degree, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, declares that the president will cooperate in no way with the House’s impeachment inquiry. It follows a White House order that a key executive branch witness may not testify before Congress. “You seek to overturn the results of the 2016 election and deprive the American people of the President they have freely chosen,” Mr. Cipollone fumes. “The President cannot allow your constitutionally illegitimate proceedings to distract him and those in the Executive Branch.”
To bolster his case, Mr. Cipollone invents restrictions on how the House may conduct impeachment inquiries, even though the Constitution vests the House with “the sole power of impeachment” and specifies that the House “may determine the rules of its proceedings.” Mr. Cipollone also argues that the case against Mr. Trump is so weak, the president’s behavior so “completely appropriate,” that the House’s motive must be illegitimate. It is House Democrats, he insists, who must be investigated.
“Bananas”; “a barely-lawyered temper tantrum”; “pure hackery”: These are just some of the words that Republican lawyers have used to describe Mr. Cipollone’s screed.
Democrats should conduct their inquiries with the good faith that many Republicans have not shown. That includes maximum transparency, so legislators can persuade the public to consider a body of evidence, collected fairly, against Mr. Trump. But the right of the House to conduct its investigation and, if it so chooses, to impeach Mr. Trump is beyond doubt. So is the responsibility of the executive branch to comply with legal congressional subpoenas.
The president does not get to decide which congressional actions are legitimate and, therefore, which congressional commands he accepts. If he has a specific claim that his circumscribed right to executive privilege should prevent the turnover of a particular document or the testimony of a particular witness, he should make a case-by-case argument. Instead, he has essentially claimed that he can ignore Congress if he so chooses. And, in true Trumpian fashion, he insists that his lawlessness is constitutionally approved while those legitimately endowed with the power to hold him to account are betraying the nation’s founding document.
In fact, the Constitution unambiguously empowers the House to conduct an impeachment, and it grants the president no authority to impede it. If members of Congress — Republicans and Democrats — do not flatly reject Mr. Trump’s letter, they will humiliate themselves and shred the constitutional order. They cannot allow the president to say that the law is not the law.