Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election left President Donald Trump in an unexpected position: strengthened.
The Special Counsel’s office could not conclude that the president’s campaign conspired with a hostile foreign power. Nor was the investigation deliberately hindered by the president or his associates. At most, the report found that the president could have obstructed the investigation if his subordinates had not repeatedly ignored orders that might have had that effect.
We only know about all this because the White House declined to exercise its prerogative to keep the content of the president’s conversations with his aides and advisers secret. That degree of candor strengthened the president’s argument that he never had anything to hide from the public. As an added benefit, the Mueller report had thrown Trump’s adversaries into disarray. Civil conflict looms as those congressional Democrats inclined to move on from this sordid chapter of American history are harangued by those who remain committed to impeachment. Trump should be taking a victory lap. True to form, however, the president seems determined to sacrifice these advantages, if only to indulge his persecution complex.
Flush with the new powers delegated to the majority party in the House, Democrats have begun to fulfill their promise to subpoena White House records. Some of those investigations are doubtlessly valuable for anyone with an interest in good governance. For example, the House Oversight Committee’s request for documents related to the White House security-clearance process is perfectly proper. Other subpoenas, like Judiciary Committee Democrats’ demand that former White House counsel Donald McGahn testify publicly about what he told Mueller, are political in nature but important for the historical record. Some subpoenas, including the Democrats’ demand to see Trump’s personal tax returns, are potentially malicious and can be resisted on reasonable grounds. But the White House has shown no willingness to exercise discretion. Instead, the president pledged to resist “all the subpoenas.”
The White House plans to belatedly invoke executive privilege to keep any more of McGahn’s conversations with the president from becoming public knowledge. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and John Gore, a Justice Department official, have refused to testify before Congress about the administration’s plan to include questions relating to citizenship in the 2020 census. And the administration has declined to cooperate with requests for information related to the Mueller probe.
The president’s strategy here, if you can even call it that, is perplexing. “These aren’t like impartial people,” Trump said amid his declaration of noncompliance. “The Democrats are trying to win 2020. The only way they can luck out is by constantly going after me on nonsense.” If Trump thinks he’s going to convert anyone who isn’t already in his camp by accusing politicians of acting like politicians, he’s deeply misguided.
By treating all congressional subpoenas as illegitimate, Trump is undermining his own message. He cannot reject the inquiries into his tax records as a private citizen as “unprecedented” with “serious consequences” for privacy with the same disdain he reserves for matters of legitimate congressional oversight without muddying the case. Moreover, by invoking executive privilege to shield the public from details related to the Mueller probe, Trump is sacrificing the appearance of transparency. Even if he’s only doing it to spare himself further embarrassment, Trump suddenly looks like he has something to hide.
More critically, Trump’s intransigence may force Democratic House leaders to rethink their political objection to impeachment proceedings. The president’s blanket refusal to facilitate Congress’s oversight duties has put Democrats opposed to impeachment on the defensive. Some congressional Democrats have flirted with some truly absurd remedies for Trump’s stonewalling, ranging from withholding disbursements for executive-branch salaries to instructing the sergeant at arms to arrest non-compliant officials. But the most logical response for Democrats would be to seek redress in the courts and, failing that, to appeal to impeachment proceedings. After all, if the opposition party cannot hold Trump to account via the committee process, then there is only one avenue left open to them. Democrats could reasonably claim their hands were forced, thereby neutralizing the potential political backlash they could face if they had used impeachment as a weapon of first resort.
Trump may think this will redound to his benefit. The president does seem to enjoy being abused—or, at least, the perception of mistreatment. But the risks for him are real. For the moment, the voting public does not agree with Democratic voters who think Trump deserves to be impeached. Trump’s recalcitrance could force voters to reconsider. And if he pushes a majority of voters into the Democrats’ camp on impeachment, who knows what other common causes they would find together.