An unchecked presidency is a danger to the Republic

On Saturday, Oct. 20, 1973, President Richard Nixon fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox because he refused to back down from his pursuit of the Watergate tapes. Nearly a half century later, President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey because of, in the president’s own words, “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia.” And Wednesday, the president complained about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation; Mr. Trump said he “would have picked someone else” to run the Department of Justice had he known that was coming.

How Congress responds to moments like these matters. The differences between Congress’ response in 1973 and our response today are stark — and, frankly, disappointing. In 1973, the House Judiciary Committee had a serious and bipartisan response, subpoenaing and eventually releasing the Watergate tapes. The current Republican response has been tepid at best; they have not issued a single subpoena to the White House, and Speaker Paul Ryan defended Mr. Trump’s interference in the Russia investigation by assuring us that “he’s just new to this.”

As the senior Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees, we believe it is critical that Special Counsel Robert Mueller be given the independence, time and resources to conduct a thorough investigation and report his findings to Congress. At the same time, as a co-equal branch of government, Congress must fulfill its constitutional duty to investigate the full range of Trump administration and Trump campaign actions.

Successful congressional investigations develop a comprehensive, fact-based record to form the basis for further action. The House and Senate Watergate investigations led to Nixon’s resignation and adoption of the Ethics in Government Act. It was serious, deliberative, bipartisan, transparent and operated in parallel to law enforcement investigations.

In the absence of any meaningful investigation by House Republicans, Democratic members have sent requests for information on our own. Our efforts have been met with months of stonewalling. The Trump White House recently told government agencies “not to cooperate [with any oversight] requests from Democrats,” and issued a contrived Justice Department legal opinion that such queries are “not properly considered to be oversight requests.”

We will continue to press for answers because the information we seek goes to the central question of the Trump presidency: Is the administration acting in the public interest, or merely to benefit the private interests of President Trump?

And because our requests have been largely ignored by the administration and the GOP — including the chairs of our own committees — we have been forced to utilize alternative means of accountability.

For example, more than 200 members of Congress have filed a lawsuit to force the president to comply with the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause. Oversight Committee Democrats are attempting to use their special statutory authority to obtain information from the General Services Administration about the lease of the Trump International Hotel to the president. Together, our committee Democrats have asked the inspector general of the Department of Justice to investigate whether Attorney General Jeff Sessions violated the terms of his recusal when he participated in the decision to fire Director Comey.

Democrats have also demanded up or down votes where critical oversight requests have been denied. The House has voted on 10 privileged resolutions — each one defeated by the Republicans — to obtain copies of the president’s tax returns. Democrats are introducing 12 separate resolutions of inquiry in six committees seeking information on matters ranging from possible obstruction of justice, to the president’s foreign entanglements, to abuse of power. And Democrats have filed a discharge petition asking every Member of the House to go on record as to whether they support an independent bipartisan commission to examine foreign intervention in our elections.

An unchecked presidency — such as that of Richard Nixon or Donald Trump — represents a clear and present danger to the Republic. We have taken this series of steps in an attempt to provide at least a measure of independent scrutiny and to mark how Republicans in Congress have repeatedly failed in this responsibility. We do not have the right to remain silent. Our investigations must continue separate from, and in addition to, the special counsel’s work.

The next constitutional crisis — the firing of Special Counsel Mueller, perhaps — is not hard to envision. Mr. Trump has already characterized the Russia investigation as “the single greatest witch hunt in American history,” being “led by some very bad and conflicted people,” and warned Mr. Mueller not to expand the investigation into his family’s finances beyond Russia.

In recent days, we have seen evidence of the willingness by Donald Trump Jr. and others in the Trump campaign to obtain information damaging to Hillary Clinton from the Russian government — information that is as probative to Mr. Mueller’s investigation as it is threatening to the president. Congress must ensure that Mr. Mueller can continue his investigation independently, effectively, and steadfastly. Should Mr. Mueller be fired, the current majority must understand they have a duty to enforce our system of checks and balances — as we did in 1973. If Republicans cannot appreciate that obligation, then the American people will be forced to decide whether they really want a Congress that continues to ignore its responsibility.

John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, is the House Judiciary Committee ranking member. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, is the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform ranking member.

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