A while ago, our water heater gave up the ghost and emptied its contents on the basement floor. After we cleaned up the mess and a got it replaced, my wife and I ruminated on the experience, and we observed that many things are completely invisible to us until they break, and so we checked out the health of all our household appliances, especially the ones that could turn the basement into a wading pool.
Unless you’re a glutton for punishment or suffering from extreme boredom, you don’t notice the workings of government until something goes way off the tracks.
The past couple of weeks, government has been even more interesting than usual, this because it’s well off the rails. If the news of the week penetrated your consciousness at all, you know that Alabama enacted a bill to outlaw abortions, raising cries of outrage and giving both political parties war cries for 2020. You’d also know that President Trump ordered a massive military buildup on Iran’s front porch, daring them to do something about it. Perhaps you heard that the president made common cause with Hungarian anti-democracy autocrat Viktor Orban. However disruptive and dangerous those news stories might be — and don’t kid yourself, all of them threaten peace and stability in the country and world — the greatest threat to our democracy is being played out by the White House.
It feels like an eternity has passed since the Mueller Report stated it could not clear the Trump administration of obstructing justice. Mueller left it to Congress to decide whether to pursue the matter. William Barr replaced his Attorney General hat with a MAGA cap and said in so many words, “move on, there’s nothing to see here.” The Democratic House said, “not so fast!” and began exercising the oversight muscle that the previous Republican House had let atrophy. Trump pushed back, and so did Congress. Trump accused the FBI of spying on him. Barr agreed. Trump ordered Barr to investigate the investigators who found and documented what more than 450 prosecutors, both Republican and Democratic, said “would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.”
The House exercised its lawful prerogative to demand the President’s tax returns from 2013 to 2018. It also subpoenaed records from banks that lent money to him during that time. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, presumably under orders from the president, refused to turn over the records. The president went further: he ordered those people whom Congress subpoenaed not to testify. Lest we forget, Trump said he was innocent and the report exonerated him. Trump’s reactions don’t pass the smell test. If you were accused of breaking the law and an investigation said you did not, would you say, “you cannot look at the thing that proves me innocent?” Would you stop the people who could vouch for you from giving sworn testimony confirming your innocence?
In an Alice-in-Wonderland moment, Trump’s lawyer, William Consovoy, testified in federal court that Congress was seeking the president’s records for law-enforcement, and only the Justice Department can do that. The judge asked if Congress could investigate whether the president was engaged in criminal activity. The president’s lawyer answered, “I don’t think that’s the proper subject of investigation as to the president.” In other words, Trump thinks that there are no checks at all on his behavior. Evidently, Trump doesn’t know the difference between overSIGHT and overlook and has ordered his staff to confuse them, too.
What makes this the greatest threat to our democracy? Our Constitution establishes and divides power among three independent and coequal branches of government. Congress has the power of the purse, so the president may not spend without the consent of the people. The president is commander-in-chief, but only Congress may declare war. Courts can declare laws unconstitutional, so a president and Congress may not act in concert to abridge the rights of “we, the people.” The President can check excesses by the legislative branch with his veto power; Congress can check presidential excesses through the power of oversight and, when essential, with impeachment.
The president is trying to deny a coequal branch of government its power to rein in an out-of-control executive. Even were Trump completely innocent of any wrongdoing in the matters under investigation, his actions threaten the structure of constitutional government. Trump must comply with Congress, no matter what he thinks of their requests, because the only guarantee we have against the rise of a dictator in America is the system of checks and balances. It doesn’t matter whether you think Trump is the greatest or worst president in history. What matters is that we the people continue checks and balances among the branches of government, our pursuit of a more perfect union. Trump, by his unlawful obstruction of Congressional inquiry, stands in the way of attaining that goal.