This post has been updated with the latest news.
President Trump’s indignation that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was investigating him has now been wholly redirected at Congress.
Trump is systematically trying to block and undercut half a dozen investigations by House Democrats related to him, forcing Congress to take extraordinary measures to try to get its information — like suing the administration or seriously considering holding as many as three current and former Trump administration officials in contempt of Congress.
Legal experts say many of Trump’s attempts to block these investigations are legal Hail Marys but they have the effect of delaying the investigations.
These standoffs get at the heart of the definition of American democracy: one branch’s ability to check the other. Here are five battles to watch.
1. Getting the unredacted Mueller report: House Democrats want all members of Congress to see the full Mueller report. Attorney General William P. Barr refused to hand it over, so on Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee is holding a vote to hold Barr in contempt of Congress. The vote is expected to pass along party lines, making Barr just the second sitting attorney general ever to be found in contempt of Congress.
How this could escalate even more: It just did. The Justice Department had the president waive executive privilege over the whole report, saying the contempt vote “terminated” any negotiations with Congress. Congress had planned to go to court to argue it has a right to the full Mueller report. But the broad executive privilege blanket could make it difficult for Congress to win their case in court. From here, Congress could vote to impeach Barr.
2. Talking to Trump’s former White House counsel: The House committee that could launch impeachment proceedings wants to talk to one of the key players in the Mueller investigation, former White House counsel Donald McGahn. Trump told McGahn not to comply with a subpoena and exerted executive privilege over those conversations. But some legal experts have argued that Trump lost his ability to exert executive privilege the day he decided not to use it when McGahn (and other aides) testified to Mueller.
How this could escalate: Democrats say the Trump administration must go to court to prove the president has legal standing to waive executive privilege. If McGahn decides to listen to his former boss and not hand over requested documents to the House Judiciary Committee, Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) may vote to hold McGahn in contempt. Just like with the contempt vote on Barr, t’s a symbolic move — no one thinks the Justice Department under Trump would jail the president’s former White House lawyer. But it’s a serious escalation.
On Trump’s finances
3. Getting details about Trump’s finances: Trump sued a member of Congress and Trump’s own accounting firm to try to prevent that firm from handing over a decade’s worth of his financial statements. A House oversight committee is investigating whether Trump inflated his assets or deflated them to get loans or avoid real estate taxes — which could constitute possible bank fraud.
How this could escalate: The accounting firm is willing to hand over the documents, and many legal experts agree Trump’s lawsuit to try to stop an outside company from cooperating with Congress doesn’t hold much water. But could the ensuing court fight take so long that Trump or key members of Congress are out of office by the time it is settled? House Oversight Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) has already had to postpone his subpoena to Mazars accounting firm while he waits for a court to hear the lawsuit in May.
4. Getting Trump’s tax records: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin decided Monday he will not let the IRS hand over Trump’s tax records to the House Ways and Means Committee, which is looking at how the IRS audits presidents. Trump has refused to publicize his tax returns, as other presidents have.
How this could escalate: Congress could sue over its right to get the tax returns. Mnuchin claims Congress doesn’t have a legitimate legislative purpose; that lawmakers are finding excuses to get Trump’s tax returns. Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) thinks he is on solid footing here because the century-old law is pretty clear that the IRS “shall” furnish tax records he requests. This case could go to the Supreme Court and take years to resolve. Congress could also vote to hold Mnuchin in contempt and even try to put him in jail, but so far there’s no serious talk of this.
On Trump’s other actions as president
5. Understanding Trump’s security clearance process: The same House oversight committee looking into Trump’s finances is investigating whether the White House gave top-secret security clearances to people who may have had drug, criminal or financial problems. This investigation has the potential to catch Trump in a lie about whether he overrode security clearance experts to give his son-in-law Jared Kushner access to the nation’s biggest secrets.
How this could escalate: Congress is working with a whistle blower and wants to talk to her former boss at the White House, Carl Kline. It subpoenaed Kline, but the White House told him to ignore the subpoena. So Kline never showed up for a hearing. Now the House Oversight Committee is considering voting to hold Kline in contempt, which could eventually lead to daily fines or the threat of jail time until he agrees to talk to lawmakers.
One way Trump could win all of these legal battles even if he loses them: by dragging them out so long that by the time they are decided, Trump and/or the lawmakers investigating him are out of office. But you know what might be faster? Impeachment.