President Trump’s defiance of congressional attempts to investigate his administration has put new pressure on the legislative branch’s ability to serve as a constitutional check on a president who sees few limits on his executive power.
Since taking office, Trump has consistently treated Congress as more of a subordinate than an equal — often aided by the tacit approval of congressional Republicans who have shown little interest in confronting the president.
But tensions between Trump and Capitol Hill have escalated in recent days as the White House refuses to comply with subpoenas from newly empowered House Democrats eager to conduct aggressive oversight of his administration.
Trump’s decision not to cooperate with House committees, coupled with reluctance from Republicans in control of the Senate to cross him, has left Congress struggling to assert itself as a coequal branch of government — most likely leaving it to the courts to settle a series of power struggles that could define the relationship between the executive and legislative branches for years to come.
“A respect for the limits of your branch of government, a respect for the role of other branches of government is sort of the oil that makes the machinery work,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), a member of the House Oversight Committee. “Absent that, things break down. And I think we’re definitely seeing that with this administration in unprecedented ways.”
This week alone, the White House and top Trump administration officials have resisted subpoenas issued by Democrats on at least three fronts — limiting how much oversight Democrats can exert as both sides prepare for a potentially protracted standoff.
First, the White House directed a former personnel security official to not appear at a scheduled deposition as part of the House Oversight Committee’s investigation into the administration’s security clearance practices. The official, Carl Kline, could now be held in contempt of Congress.
The House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed former White House counsel Donald McGahn, prompting administration officials to indicate they would assert executive privilege to block his testimony as Democrats seek more information about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, including whether the president obstructed justice.
And on Wednesday, the Justice Department said it will not comply with a bipartisan subpoena from the Oversight Committee that sought testimony for its ongoing investigation of the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
The Treasury Department this week also blew through another House-issued deadline, though not technically a subpoena, to turn Trump’s tax returns over to the Ways and Means Committee. And late Wednesday, the White House told a House committee that Trump adviser Stephen Miller was turning down an invitation to testify on the administration’s immigration policies.
“We’re fighting all the subpoenas. These aren’t, like, impartial people,” Trump told reporters Wednesday, charging Democrats are motivated solely by politics. “The Democrats are trying to win 2020.”
Democrats, determined to punch back harder with every rejection from the administration, warn that Trump’s attempts to resist congressional oversight could set a dangerous precedent.
“If Trump is allowed to get away with ignoring Congress, then, in effect, we no longer have a representative system of government,” said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee. “We have more like a monarchy. That’s exactly what our framers wanted to prevent.”
The president and his allies have dismissed these complaints, noting he is not the first president to go around a recalcitrant Congress or to clash with lawmakers eager to investigate an administration. His defenders also argue Democrats are overreaching in their probes, which launched shortly after the party took control of the House on Jan. 3.
“He obviously wants to work with Congress because he has an agenda that, most of it, doesn’t go anywhere without Congress,” said a former senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s views. “But I also think he looks at Congress in the way he looks at all of Washington. . . . These people were sent here to do specific things they ran on and they don’t do a whole lot.”
The former official added: “America’s general scorn toward Congress . . . I think that’s pretty widely shared in the West Wing.”
While Trump’s subpoena fights with Democrats are new, his lack of deference to Congress has been a theme throughout his presidency, when for the first two years a Republican-controlled Congress rarely challenged him. He continues to brush aside some concerns voiced by Senate Republicans over nominees, his assertion of executive power and trade policy.
Trump has openly expressed his preference for acting Cabinet members, even while vacancies persist at the highest levels of the administration, despite senators’ argument that senior officials who don’t go through the confirmation process can be less accountable to lawmakers and the public. Several key Cabinet posts are filled by acting officials, including the secretaries of defense and homeland security.
The year began with a historically long partial government shutdown that ended only after Trump issued an emergency declaration to circumvent Congress to secure funding that lawmakers would not provide for his border wall — despite early warnings from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that such a move would be unpopular with GOP senators.
The administration has also blown off some requests from powerful Republicans, such as a demand from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) in February that he be provided with a copy of a Commerce Department report examining whether tariffs on foreign-made cars and auto parts could be imposed on national security grounds. As of this week, he hasn’t been provided one.
“The Finance Committee is the committee of jurisdiction for trade policy,” said Michael Zona, a Grassley spokesman. “So there’s no good reason the Commerce Department shouldn't share an official trade policy report with the chairman.”
A bipartisan investigation requested by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last fall into the death of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi called on the administration to send a report to Congress required under a law aimed at combating human rights abuses.
But in February, the Trump administration declined to do so. A senior administration at the time said Trump has discretion to “decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate.”
Senate Republicans have shown more willingness to break with the president — if gently — in recent weeks.
Opposition from at least four Senate Republicans doomed any prospects of former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain getting nominated to the Federal Reserve. And GOP leaders are urging Trump to get input from their members earlier and more often in the confirmation process — a tacit acknowledgment that their constitutional role and influence has been shrinking under Trump.
“He seems to be comfortable with people in an acting role,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 Senate Republican. “I think it’s better for the process, for him, and for the people that are being nominated to these positions if they go through a full confirmation process and get the validation of the United States Senate under the advise and consent requirement in the Constitution.”
The dynamic between the White House and House Democrats is becoming increasingly bitter, even as leaders in both branches continue to hold out some hope that bipartisan deals might be possible in the second half of Trump’s first term.
The president and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are scheduled to meet next week about infrastructure, although the specter of congressional investigations will almost certainly hang over the discussion.
“They’re supposed to be talking about infrastructure,” counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway said. “If she’s coming here under the ruse of infrastructure and wants to talk about subpoenas, I’ll let you know.”
And on Wednesday, Trump suggested he would go to the Supreme Court to stop any attempt by Democrats to impeach him, despite legal scholars saying that power is clearly given to Congress in the Constitution.
“I DID NOTHING WRONG,” Trump wrote in a tweet. “If the partisan Dems ever tried to Impeach, I would first head to the U.S. Supreme Court. Not only are there no ‘High Crimes and Misdemeanors,’ there are no Crimes by me at all.”