In the past two and a half years the President has repeatedly argued that he is not subject to legal process. That he is not required to make public information which is historically made public by presidents. That he is not constrained in any real way by either the enumerated, implied, or customary powers of his office. He has acted, in all practical ways, as a monarch.
Now, pursuant to a letter his lawyer sent to Congress yesterday — a letter devoid of any actual substantive legal objection or defense to current proceedings by Congress — the president has asserted a legally baseless, blanket assertion that neither he nor anyone who works under him will comply with Congress’ constitutionally-authorized and constitutionally-mandated powers of oversight of the Executive Branch. He has made it clear that he believes he is not subject to impeachment or oversight of any kind, full stop.
Which means that we are now in a fully-blown constitutional crisis.
That term — “constitutional crisis” — gets thrown around from time to time, often irresponsibly. Usually it’s invoked at a time of political gridlock or, perhaps, scandal. Rarely in our history has it actually been deployed accurately and specifically because rarely in our history have we come to a point where the very future of our country and its form of government has been thrown into question. Never has a sitting president rejected any and all constraints on the power of his office and acted as if he and he alone gets to decide how he should proceed. We have now, however, come to that point.
President Trump’s declaration that he will not cooperate with a legitimate Congressional investigation will no doubt cause Congress to attempt to exercise formal legal process to compel the production of witnesses and documents. Trump will, apparently, fight those efforts by any means necessary, legal or otherwise. In the end, Trump will either be compelled by a court to comply with the Congressional investigation or he will not be.
The very act of getting to that point, however, risks destroying our system forever.
If the courts side with Trump’s abject refusal to comply with Congress in the course of a legitimate investigation — or if Congress loses its nerve and backs down in the face of Trump’s intransigence — the very concept of Congressional oversight of the Executive will be a dead letter and the notion that we have three co-equal branches of government will be definitively cast aside. Our Republic will, in such case, be transformed, for all practical purposes, into an Executive dictatorship.
If, on the other hand, the courts side with Congress, the president will no doubt intensify his defiant acts and rhetoric, casting Congress, the judiciary and the media as treasonous enemies of the state that have singled him out for persecution. He will no doubt be aided in this by a massively influential conservative media apparatus and, in all likelihood, virtually the entire Republican Party. The end product of this will be that a significant chunk of the population will agree with him that his power has been illegitimately usurped. That a coup has been perpetrated. In that case our Republic, though legally saved, will stand mortally wounded, perhaps for generations.
There are only two ways either of these disastrous constitutional outcomes can be avoided. One is an absolute impossibility and the other is a near-certain impossibility, at least based on everything we have seen:
1. President Trump, at some point, accepts that he must submit himself and his office to Congressional oversight and let that process play out however it plays out; or
2. Influential Republicans — senators, party leaders, former office holders and those in the media — call out President Trump’s unlawful and irresponsible rhetoric and behavior, assert, unequivocally, that the current Congressional investigation is, in fact, legitimate, and demand for it to proceed accordingly, again, however it may play out.
Short of either of those things occurring, it’s hard for me to see how our Constitution emerges from all of this without being mortally wounded and our country thrown into a state of autocracy.