War has been declared, declared indeed. It is between Donald Trump and the new Democratic majority of the House of Representatives over the Mueller report on Russian interference. William Barr is the henchman put in place to carry out the task, not so much as an attorney general but more as a defense lawyer, as evidenced by the energy with which he defended the interests of his boss on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, with a Republican majority, and then by his refusal the following day to appear before the House Judiciary Committee.
Attack on the constitutional order, contempt for the rule of law … Opponents to Trump on all sides have raised the specter of threat for two years, and rightly so, posed by the impunity with which Trump schemes and manipulates the presidency. With Congress having resumed its work after the Easter break, the conflict is now becoming even more explicit, the White House showing its shameless disregard for the fundamental principle, in this imperfect democracy, of the separation of powers.
Trump laid the groundwork about 10 days ago when he asserted that “we’re fighting all the subpoenas,” referring to the subpoenas that may be presented by any of the six House committees that are investigating him. No to the disclosure of his tax returns; no to the hearing of an immigration policy adviser; no to the appearance of former White House Counsel Donald McGahn, a key witness for the Mueller investigation on allegations of obstruction of justice. In short, no to everything, in the name of “executive privilege.” Such is the anxiety among the Trumps that last Monday the family filed lawsuits against the German Deutsche Bank and the American bank Capital One to prevent them from disclosing information on the Trumps’ financial transactions to a committee — which some find troubling.
A president who resists cooperating with a Congress from which he does not have bipartisan support is not new. Richard Nixon comes to mind. At the time of the Watergate scandal, he attempted to block the disclosure of incriminating recordings, but the Supreme Court rejected Nixon’s claims, finding that “executive privilege” did not protect relevant information in a criminal investigation.
Trump’s behavior is unprecedented in that he seeks to stop the House of Representatives everywhere and at all times from performing its constitutional duty of government oversight. It is a role that is bound to be ambiguous, certainly, in this case, with a Democratic majority, as the House simultaneously navigates both legal and political terrain, and finds itself to be both judge and plaintiff.
Still, it is becoming increasingly clear that on March 24, Barr provided a tendentious summary of the Mueller report by insisting that it cleared Trump of all suspicion. Even redacted, the report which was made public three weeks later, struck down such an acquittal, or at least with much qualification, reported around 100 contacts with the Russians and a dozen incidents that could amount to obstruction of justice — starting with Trump’s request to dismiss the special prosecutor. What’s more, Barr’s sugarcoating of the Mueller report was confirmed by a letter from Mueller which The Washington Post made public Tuesday evening. In the March 27 letter, the special counsel, taking a very unusual step, complained to his superiors that Barr’s summary did not reflect the “context, nature, and substance” of his investigation.
Running under, over and in between all of these key issues of democratic clarity is the partisan circus, with 18 months until the 2020 elections. It is necessary that Mueller testify before the House committee, that the Democrats obtain an unredacted copy of his report and that Barr does not feel he is permitted to lie. In short, it is necessary that congressional privilege is respected.
However, what can the Democrats really do against a president rising up this way – how far are they willing to go? Impeachment proceedings? Public opinion on impeachment is not very favorable, and impeachment would not succeed anyway since Republicans hold a majority in the Senate. Not to mention the fact as Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders have asserted, that with impeachment, the country would focus in vain exclusively on Trump, who could not ask for more. The Democrats are ready to go to battle, but they go in disarray.