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Fri, Dec. 06

Column | Oversight is not optional in democracy

After (falsely) claiming total exoneration from the release of a redacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, President Trump has dug in his heels even further, telling reporters that the White House was fighting “all the subpoenas” from Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Presumably included on that list are efforts by the House Judiciary Committee to subpoena former White House counsel Don McGahn to testify on his testimony in Mueller’s report. There’s also the House Oversight Committee, which held former White House personnel security director Carl Kline in contempt earlier this week when he chose not to respond to a subpoena about security clearance practices in the administration’s early days. And of course, there is also the ongoing fight between the Department of the Treasury and the House Ways and Means Committee over President Trump’s long-hidden tax returns.

More broadly, the president seems to be signaling that he’s disinclined to cooperate with any sort of congressional oversight. Unfortunately for him, that isn’t how our democracy – or any functioning democracy – works.

Congress is a co-equal branch of the executive by design. It a well-known feature of the U.S. government’s origin story that our founders were fearful of an overpowered head-of-state, and it’s reflected in the way our government is structured. When you add to that the Republican Party’s constant rhetoric of panic around President Obama’s supposed imperial presidency, and their willingness to use every mechanism of congressional oversight to harass him for eight years but produce no results (i.e. not one instance of obstruction of justice – much less Mueller’s ten-plus examples), President Trump’s stance is even more bizarre and hypocritical.

Beyond that – and specific to the question around a possible testimony from McGahn or anyone else who is tangent to the special counsel’s work – the fact remains that the conversation around the Mueller investigation is not yet concluded. Mueller clearly left the question of whether or not the president of the United States committed obstruction of justice to Congress. He laid out the case in his report, but was unable to do more based on Department of Justice guidelines that suggest a sitting president cannot be indicted for a crime.

This is the school of thought that is leading some Democratic leaders to consider impeachment, and others urging a wait-and-see (and investigate some more) approach. Whether one believes the Mueller Report is a formal or informal impeachment referral or not, the clear answer is more congressional investigation to choose the right path forward. That starts with testimony - from those with explosive stories to tell, like McGahn, as well as from Mueller himself.

And that’s why Trump’s attitude about oversight is dangerous – not just for the country, but for himself as well. He appears to have learned all the wrong lessons from the Mueller Investigation, likely lulled into a sense of complacency by a protective attorney general, a complacent GOP Congress, and an devoted echo chamber of right-wing media. By continuing to up the ante with public proclamations rather than a quiet legal battle, he draws more attention to his behavior - behavior that is anecdotal evidence that he’s exactly the type of president who would try to stop an investigation into himself.

Unfortunately for Trump, he is more brawler than tactician (in the sense that the same can be said of a bull in a china shop). His intransigence may be satisfying in the short-run, but it’s far from certain it will protect him in the long run – at least, if our democracy functions as it should.

For now, it is clear the subpoena fights and the Mueller Investigation conversation will persist because, whether the president likes it or not, oversight is not optional in democracy.

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