EDITORIAL: Optimism as courts reject stonewalling

York Dispatch Editorial Board
U.S. President Donald Trump talks with troops at a Memorial Day event aboard the USS Wasp amphibious assault ship, Tuesday, May 28, 2019, in Yokosuka, Japan. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

One of the most laughable assertions made by President Donald Trump — and the competition in this regard is intense — is his claim, repeated in May 22 statements to the media, that he is the most transparent president in history.

One can only assume he doesn’t know what the word “transparent” means.

Surprisingly little about this president — both before and since taking office — is open to public scrutiny. From his academic records to outtakes of his reality TV show to his medical history to his tax returns, Trump is reliably furtive; rarely forthcoming.

White House visitor logs are kept from the public, staffers are required to sign non-disclosure agreements and would-be congressional investigators are ignored.

These actions are not only unprecedented but, in the case of congressional oversight, likely unconstitutional.

So, it was heartening last week when a pair of White House lawsuits aimed at dismissing congressional investigations into the president and his administration were summarily rejected in federal court.

Specifically, the judges ruled, in separate cases, that House Democrats can move forward with efforts to subpoena Trump-related financial records from public financial institutions.

More broadly — and more importantly — they issued the decisions quickly and decisively. That not only undermines similar White House arguments for fighting subpoenas, it pours cold water on the strategy of delaying the probes in court.

The fight over Trump’s financial records is only one of many that have erupted as a result of White House stonewalling. Attorney General William Barr has ignored a subpoena to testify before the House Judiciary Committee, and former White House attorney Don McGhan has been directed by Trump to do likewise.

Republicans in Congress, worried about their status as a coequal branch of government and concerned that forfeiting constitutional oversight responsibilities could forever change the balance of power in Washington, have … well … they’ve done nothing.

Other than Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who has publicly called for the president’s impeachment based on findings in the report of special counsel Robert Mueller, the party has sat by silently, happy to parrot presidential excuses that the Democratic-led investigations are partisan fishing expeditions (while conveniently ignoring their own years-long — and, ultimately, futile — investigations of the 2012 uprising in Benghazi, Libya).

One thing is transparent about this most opaque of presidents: he is hoping that Democrats will take Amash’s advice — and the advice of many in their own party — and launch impeachment proceedings. That would give Trump three things he loves: A fight, a chance to play the victim, and protection from any real consequences in the form of the Republican-controlled Senate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi isn’t taking the bait. And, in fact, congressional leaders shouldn’t have to go to the extreme of impeachment to ensure a presidential administration respects Congress’s constitutional role.

As two federal judges made clear last week, the White House claim of what amounts to immunity from congressional investigations is legally groundless — and impeachment need not play into the equation.

In his ruling, for example, federal Judge Amit Mehta noted that it was “simply not fathomable” that “a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a president for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct — past or present — even without formally opening an impeachment inquiry.”

There is little to suggest that Trump will suddenly succumb to reason and undig his heels. There is even less hope that any of the political invertebrates among GOP congressional leaders will stand up for the Constitution over partisan expediency.

But there is reason for optimism that the courts will continue to see through the administration’s feeble efforts at congressional stonewalling. The White House’s indefensible sleights are, after all, one of the very few examples of transparency in the Trump administration.