Trump’s Obstruction of Congress: The Real Constitutional Threat
In the ongoing trial of Donald Trump, the House Managers have laid out a case on two articles of impeachment. Article I – abuse of Presidential power – received the most time and attention by the House Managers and the President’s defense team. However, Article II, charging the President with obstruction of Congress, describes conduct that will have more far reaching consequences for the nation. At the President’s direction, the White House and federal agencies have refused to produce a single document. He has also directed key federal employees to refuse to appear for testimony. If a President can unilaterally declare impeachment proceedings in the House to be invalid, and on that basis deprive those proceedings of crucial evidence, what is left of the impeachment power?
But unilaterally declaring the House impeachment proceedings invalid is exactly what the President, through his White House Counsel, did in an October 2019 letter. The letter asserted that the impeachment inquiry was invalid because the House failed to take a vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry before two of its committees began issuing subpoenas. The letter cited precedent from earlier impeachments. The real objection was that the House had not taken a preliminary vote making House members who supported it politically accountable. Therefore, according to White House Counsel Cipollone, “President Trump cannot permit his Administration to participate in this partisan inquiry.”
As we have heard, the Constitution bestows on the House of Representatives “the sole Power of Impeachment.” What does this really mean? It means that no other branch of government – neither the Senate, nor the courts nor the President — can decide what constitutes “Treason, Bribery or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” for purposes of impeachment.
Furthermore, Article I, Sec. 5 of the Constitution gives the House, not the President, the power to determine the rules of its proceedings. No other branch of government can insist upon or determine the rules by which the House exercises its power of impeachment. Even if all prior impeachment inquiries started with a House vote, which is dubious, it is not for the President to decide that the House is bound by this precedent. There is nothing in the Constitution requiring such a vote.
The President’s defense team has argued that several privileges were involved in the President’s decision to defy subpoenas for witnesses. Among these is executive privilege, which is the privilege of the President to maintain the confidentiality of communications between himself and other members of the executive branch, usually involving sensitive military or national security matters. Executive privilege is rooted in the doctrine of separation of powers. But when President Nixon tried to shield the Watergate tapes by a blanket claim of executive privilege, the Supreme Court rejected the claim. As with any other claim of privilege against producing relevant evidence, the assertion of executive privilege must be specific.
The problem with executive privilege as an excuse for a blanket refusal to cooperate is that is has never been asserted either generally or specifically. The White House Counsel’s letter referred to privileges the President could potentially invoke but did not actually assert executive privilege. Even in the Senate trial so far, the President has not asserted executive privilege. To do so, the President would have had to identify the particular document or communication containing privileged material.
Even more fundamental, a privilege that has been waived cannot be asserted. In the House Manager’s brief, they state
Regardless, executive privilege is inapplicable here, both because it may not be used to conceal wrongdoing – particularly in an impeachment inquiry – and because the President and his agents have already diminished any confidentiality interests by speaking about these events in every forum except Congress.
The President himself declassified the call record with President Zelensky. He has asserted in public what he has and has not discussed with Ambassador Sondland, Chief of Staff Mulvaney and Ambassador Bolton about holding up security aid in exchange for investigations. This destroys privilege as to the subject matter of these communications.
If the House can be thwarted in its search for facts in an impeachment inquiry by the blanket refusal of the President Trump to cooperate, then the impeachment power will be neutered. There will be no sensitive matter on which a future President will not likewise make that same assertion. The result will be that the power to check a reckless and lawless President will no longer exist. The power to subpoena material from the executive branch is essential for Congress to exercise the power of impeachment that it alone has. As House Manager Schiff argued, without Article II (Obstruction of Congress) there can be no future Article I (Abuse of Power).
The first Article of Impeachment alleging abuse of power is serious. It alleges a perversion of the power of the President into a tool for the President’s personal benefit at the expense of an ally. This seriousness of this conduct should not be minimized. But in terms of its long term damage to the Constitution, it pales before the second Article. We may finish the impeachment trial without a conviction on Article I, but if there is no conviction on Article II our constitutional power to check the executive will be in tatters.