OP-ED: Obstruction of Congress, live on TV

Jonathan Bernstein
Bloomberg News (TNS)
Former Trump campaign chairman Corey Lewandowski waits to testify before House Judiciary Committee hearing on "Presidential Obstruction of Justice and Abuse of Power" on Capitol Hill in Washington on September 17, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/ABACAPRESS.COM/TNS)

The House Judiciary Committee brought in President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski on Tuesday as part of what it’s now calling an impeachment investigation.

Indeed, the committee subpoenaed Lewandowski, former White House staff secretary Rob Porter and former White House deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn to discuss clear evidence of obstruction of justice by Trump in attempting to shut down the Justice Department’s investigation of Russian campaign interference.

Porter and Dearborn didn’t show up after the White House instructed them not to. Lewandowski did, but he refused to answer most questions under White House instructions. In each case, the White House made assertions of executive privilege that went far beyond any interpretation that’s ever been claimed.

More:Lewandowski, House Democrats spar at impeachment hearing

More:Mueller: I did not clear Trump of obstruction

More:Mueller report play spotlights Trump’s 10 acts of possible obstruction

Or, as Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland put it while questioning Lewandowski, it was a “tooth fairy” privilege that doesn’t actually exist.

As Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York noted, obstruction of a Congressional inquiry was part of the three counts of impeachment voted by the Judiciary Committee in 1974 against President Richard Nixon, which would certainly have been overwhelmingly adopted by the full House before an overwhelming Senate vote to remove him if Nixon hadn’t resigned first.

In other words, whatever Trump did or didn’t do in response to the Russia inquiry, he is now fully engaged (as Nixon was in the months before he resigned on Aug. 9, 1974) in a cover-up of a cover-up.

And that is legitimate grounds for impeachment and removal.

As it happens, there’s plenty of evidence of obstruction of the Russia probe, which the Democrats attempted to dramatize in their questions to Lewandowski. He didn’t say much, but he did confirm that the description of obstruction detailed by the report that Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller delivered in April was, to the extent it involved him, accurate.

That is: The president used Lewandowski as part of his scheming to shut down investigations into his campaign, and more broadly into Russian interference with the 2016 election.

The crucial point here is that Republicans in Congress are unmoved by any of this.

What’s important to understand is just how much all of this undermines the rule of law. The president certainly did something that looks like obstruction of justice. The Mueller report said that it was obstruction of justice. And yet congressional Republicans are ignoring it. And they are actively cooperating with the president’s attempts to stretch executive privilege to the point where the president would be immune from any congressional and perhaps judicial oversight at all.

Whether or not Tuesday’s hearing has any effect on public or media opinion, it is further evidence of the president’s abuse of power, and legitimate cause for removing him.

That’s in theory. In reality, we’re still pretty far from actually getting to impeachment.

Democrats continue to have difficulty using oversight hearings to make their points. They are getting better: Committee members asked good questions on Tuesday or used their five-minute turns to highlight the key points of the Mueller report and the case against Trump.

But Nadler stumbled at the beginning, not seeming to know exactly how to deal with Lewandoski’s entirely expected refusal to answer questions. CNN, MSNBC and Fox News all carried the beginning of the hearing live, but all three cut away after an hour or so, missing some of the more effective questions.

What’s more urgent than the eventual decision on impeachment — which, remember, won’t actually do anything to slow Trump down as long as Republicans in the Senate are unlikely to even take it seriously — is whether Trump will get away with obstructing Congress and inventing ever-expanding claims of executive privilege.

It appears at this point that the courts will weigh in, with the Democratic House choosing to look for answers there rather than attempting to cite anybody for contempt, which would be subject to enforcement by a Trump Justice Department that’s unlikely, to put it mildly, to follow through.

The danger is that if the courts side with Trump then they’ll be establishing that the president is, for all practical purposes, above the law. It would be better if Congress, Democrats and Republican together, made it clear that such conduct is unacceptable. But without that, House Democrats, and the rule of law, just don’t have a lot of good options.

— Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.