The Democrats are confused. This week, Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerold Nadler declared that the United States had entered a period of “constitutional crisis.” The Trump administration’s general contempt for congressional oversight authority had brought the country to the brink. Nadler called the administration’s behavior a “blatant abuse of power,” but when pressed about the remedies the House of Representatives planned to pursue to address this “crisis,” he ruled out impeachment. That, Nadler said, would “not be the best answer in this constitutional crisis.”
So, following the chairman’s logic, impeachment is not a viable (if undesirable) remedy to the current “constitutional crisis,” and there are other ways for the House to resolve the current impasse? If so, then this particular “constitutional crisis” isn’t a crisis at all. It is a confrontation between the branches of government, in which the executive has arguably exceeded its authority, and the legislature can appeal to more than one means of seeking redress spelled out in … the Constitution.
The Trump administration’s gambit here is a risky one. No doubt, the White House has decided that it’s best strategy ahead of the 2020 elections is to drive its opponents insane, even if that means challenging constitutional conventions like cooperating with congressional investigators.
By treating Congress’s request for information relating to the 2020 census with the same disdain he has for Congress’s calls for his personal tax returns as a private citizen, the president has sacrificed the ability to argue against discrete abuses of legislative power. Donald Trump is characterizing all uses of legislative authority as abuse, even its most legitimate functions. The power of congressional inquiry knows limits, but Trump’s failure to cooperate with its implied oversight authority leaves Congress with one last resort.
By closing off Congress’s capacity to oversee the workings of the administration, the White House is knowingly forcing Democrats to pursue an impeachment inquiry under the assumption that the process will redound to its political benefit. That is by no means guaranteed. Inviting a confrontation in which there can be only one winner is always a gamble, and no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
But none of these scenarios exist outside the legal parameters established in the Constitution. The prospect of one branch’s infringing on another, necessitating even extraordinary corrective measures, was not beyond the Founder’s comprehension. The crisis Nancy Pelosi and her fellow Democrats are dealing with isn’t constitutional but political. The remedy for presidential excesses constituting a violation of behavior that is prescribed in law is right there in Article 1, Section 2. She just doesn’t want to pull the trigger.
Pelosi’s rationale for wanting to avoid impeachment is perfectly prudent. It falls on Congress to make the case against the president—an all-consuming communications challenge that robs Democrats of the opportunity to argue for their legislative priorities. More problematic still, it steals the public’s focus away from the party’s presidential candidates, placing it instead on the unpopular and fractious House of Representatives. But because the speaker of the house can’t be honest about her efforts to herd the Democratic Party’s restive base voters down a more productive path, she, too, is blaming the Constitution for her current predicament.
Donald Trump does represent a test of America’s governing institutions. One day, the country may very well face a threat to its constitutional framework. When that day comes, it would be valuable if Americans still believed their elected officials when they sound the alarms. At the rate at which these officials are sacrificing their credibility, that seems like an unlikely scenario.