Trump’s Impeachment Strategy Is Now Clear
For House Democrats, who had hoped to swiftly gather evidence with an eye toward drafting articles of impeachment before the end of the year, the present stakes could hardly be higher. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff of California denounced the administration’s refusal to let Sondland appear as yet more “strong evidence” of “obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress,” and he and the chairmen of two other committees leading the investigation—Eliot Engel of Foreign Affairs and Elijah Cummings of Oversight and Reform—said they would issue a subpoena seeking Sondland’s testimony and relevant documents.
Precisely what the Democrats can do to compel the administration’s cooperation is a much tougher question. Cipollone’s refusal to cooperate “under these circumstances” seems to tease the possibility that the White House could change its attitude if Pelosi sought a vote from the full House, authorizing commencement of impeachment proceedings and setting rules for the process, as has been past practice. It seems just as possible that if she did so, Trump would move the goal posts again. In a background call with reporters Tuesday, a senior White House official repeatedly declined to speculate under what terms Trump might cooperate, while also seeming to acknowledge that he was not vowing to never cooperate in any way.
So far, when stymied by the administration in its requests for testimony or documents, the House has resorted to the courts, but that process is complex and takes considerable time. Not until roughly a year after Richard Nixon’s Oval Office taping system became public did a unanimous Supreme Court order the president to surrender the tapes. And even then, the Court ordered the president to hand them over to the Watergate special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, and the presiding judge, John Sirica—not to Congress itself. At the moment, no comparable criminal investigation of this president and his men is under way, and as long as William Barr remains attorney general, even the prospect of that seems exceedingly remote.
In the summer of 1973, when demands for the Nixon tapes first surfaced, the White House announced that the president would abide by a “definitive” judgment of the Supreme Court, but Nixon himself declined to say what that meant. Just whose authority would Donald Trump—who has brazenly defied conventional political norms at every turn—regard as “definitive”? His administration’s expansive view of executive power was on vivid display in a Washington courtroom on Tuesday, when a Justice Department lawyer argued against the release of redacted portions of the Mueller report and its underlying grand-jury evidence to the House Judiciary Committee, which has been seeking the material since July.
The lawyer, Elizabeth Shapiro, contended that a crucial Watergate-era ruling by Sirica, which allowed the release of secret grand-jury material to Congress as a “road map” of evidence for impeachment, would not be decided the same way now. “If that case came today, a different result would be obtained,” Shapiro insisted.