In his letter to House leadership, the White House counsel, Pat Cipollone, drew a line in the sand: The administration will not “participate in” the impeachment proceedings in any way. The odd language of “participate in” — presidential impeachment is not meant to be a collaboration between Congress and the president — obscures the central thrust of the letter: The White House is refusing to respond to any subpoenas or other demands for information from the House.
Of course, other administrations have fought with Congress over access to information, but those fights have centered around clearly articulated objections, supported by legal reasoning, to turning over specific documents or allowing specific officials to testify. The Trump administration’s wholesale refusal to treat congressional information demands as legitimate is so different in degree as to become different in kind.
It might seem like the White House has the House of Representatives over a barrel. If the president simply refuses to engage, what can the House do? How does a chamber of Congress go about wringing information from an unwilling executive branch?
Let’s get one thing out of the way at the outset: The answer is unlikely to be found in a courtroom. That’s not to say that the House probably wouldn’t win on the merits. Most of the administration’s arguments are risible, and even many Republican judges will have trouble swallowing them. Indeed, when the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations raised significantly more plausible objections to congressional subpoenas, the courts sided with the House, ordering the executive to turn over the vast majority of the subpoenaed material.
But those court battles took years. Courts could expedite proceedings to an extent, but thus far they have shown themselves in no hurry to render final judgments in these disputes. And a court “victory” coming in 2021 or 2022 is no victory at all for the House — even assuming that the Trump administration would comply with a court order when it refuses to comply with a congressional one.
So what should the House do instead? Let me suggest two ways that it can play some constitutional hardball of its own, matching the White House’s aggressive tactics.
Refusal to comply with a duly authorized subpoena from Congress constitutes contempt of Congress. Contempt of Congress is a crime, and there is a mechanism for referring such cases to federal prosecutors. The problem, of course, is that federal prosecutors answer to the attorney general and, through him, to the White House, and they refuse to prosecute contempts committed by executive officials. In recent decades, congressional houses have sought a court order requiring executive officials to comply with their subpoenas, but that has all the problems described above.
The House should instead put back on the table the option of using its sergeant-at-arms to arrest contemnors — as the person in violation of the order is called — especially when an individual, like Rudy Giuliani, is not an executive branch official. Neither house of Congress has arrested anyone since 1935, but it was not uncommon before that point (and was blessed by the Supreme Court in 1927). Indeed, on at least two occasions, the second in 1916, a house of Congress had its sergeant arrest an executive branch official. (In that case, the Supreme Court eventually ruled against the House, not because it did not have the power to arrest for contempt, but rather because the offense — writing a nasty public letter to a House subcommittee — could not properly be understood as contempt of Congress.)
Facilities in the Capitol or one of the House office buildings can be made into a makeshift holding cell if necessary. Of course, arrestees will ask the courts to set them free, but the case should be relatively open-and-shut against them: They will have committed a contempt in refusing to turn over subpoenaed materials, and the House has the power to hold contemnors. Moreover, time would work in the House’s favor here: The unpleasantness of being in custody while the issue was being litigated might make some contemnors decide to cooperate.
The House arresting someone would be explosive and clearly should not be undertaken lightly. But the very explosiveness of it would be a way for the House to signal the seriousness of White House obstructionism to the public. Moreover, having arrest as an option of last resort might also make less extreme options more palatable.
One of those less extreme options would be using the power of the purse. The government is currently funded through Nov. 21. There is nothing stopping the House from putting a provision in the next funding bill that zeros out funding for the White House Counsel’s Office. House leadership could announce that, so long as the counsel’s office is producing bad legal argumentation designed for no purpose other than protecting the president from constitutional checks, the American people should not have to pay for it.
Of course, the Senate could try to strip that rider, or President Trump could veto the bill, but if the House held firm, the administration’s choice would be to mollify the House by turning over subpoenaed information, accept the defunding of the counsel’s office, or accept the partial government shutdown that would come with failure to pass the appropriations bill.
In the end, whether the House wins that fight, like whether it wins a fight over arresting a contemnor, would be a function of which side best convinces the public. But President Trump is deeply unpopular, and the public supports impeachment. If necessary, the House should be willing to have these fights.
Democrats press Nadler to hold Lewandowski in contempt
Democrats are pressuring House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) to hold Corey Lewandowski in contempt of Congress after the former Trump campaign manager stonewalled lawmakers during his testimony earlier in the week.
“He operated in contempt of Congress, and yes, I believe he should be” held in contempt. “And I’ve expressed that to the chair,” Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), a member of the Judiciary panel, told The Hill on Thursday.
“The only purpose to do it is to have teeth in it and to send a message to Mr. Lewandowski that he has to come forth, tell the truth and live up to his obligations under the subpoena,” she added. “His performance was an absurdity.”
Both Nadler and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have expressed interest in holding Lewandowski in contempt, with Pelosi telling members on Thursday that Democrats should have acted “right then and there” at Tuesday’s Judiciary hearing when Lewandowski refused to cooperate with Democrats.
But Pelosi also seemed to defer any decisions to Nadler.
“I trust the committee and the path that they are on,” she said Thursday.
Anticipating an uncooperative witness, some Judiciary Democrats initially consulted the House general counsel about a contempt vote prior to Lewandowski’s testimony, sources familiar with the discussions say. But the counsel recommended against moving to hold him in contempt.
Lewandowski’s pugnacious behavior and refusal to answer questions has triggered a new wave of Democrats to voice support for holding him in contempt.
While the former Trump campaign aide was ordered by the White House not to go beyond the four corners of the Mueller report, he took it a step further by refusing to answer questions about his private conversations with Trump or claiming he did not remember them.
He also challenged Democrats during the hearing, including accusing Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas) of going on a rant and arguing that “Trump haters” were seeking to take down the president.
Democratic Judiciary members are so frustrated by Lewandowski’s performance that they are urging Nadler to hold a closed-door meeting either Thursday or Friday about what action to take against him, committee members said.
“There is a lot of agitating,” one Judiciary member said.
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a senior committee member, said Nadler and other panel leaders had anticipated the stonewalling, with Lewandowski dropping hints in the days leading up to the hearing. Now Johnson is among those supporting a contempt vote, to prevent Lewandowski’s recalcitrance from becoming the norm.
“Many members are in accord with the Speaker about wanting to protect the integrity of our process and send a message to future witnesses that their contemptuous conduct can meet the same fate as Lewandowski — should we hold him in contempt,” Johnson said.
“I suppose some might say that to do that would be distractive,” Johnson said of would-be Democratic critics. “But the greater issue is the integrity of our process, and the fact that we can’t allow it to be trashed like Lewandowski trashed it — all the way from his opening statement to his exit from the committee room.”
If Democrats initiate the contempt process, Johnson said, it would likely be soon.
Democrats argue that if they don’t take that step, other witnesses will copy Lewandowski’s playbook in dodging questions and stalling during the hearing.
Some Democrats also say it would look bad if they do not push back against the White House claims of privilege over the testimony of someone who has never worked in the administration. Nadler and other Democrats reject those immunity claims.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), another Judiciary member and former 2020 presidential candidate, is among those pressing for contempt.
“We’re engaging with the chairman about that,” he said Thursday, without specifying a timeline.
After members finished questioning Lewandowski on Tuesday, Nadler said he was considering holding Lewandowski in contempt, which would require a resolution to be voted on in Judiciary before a floor vote.
“Mr. Lewandowski, your behavior in this hearing room has been completely unacceptable. It is part of a pattern of a White House desperate for the American people not to hear the truth,” Nadler said at the hearing. “I’ve been asked several times today whether the committee will hold you in contempt. It is certainly under consideration.”
Democrats sought to question the longtime Trump ally on his role in a key episode of obstruction by Trump that former special counsel Robert Mueller examined, in which the president asked Lewandowski to pass along a message to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in 2017 to reverse his recusal and set limits on the Russia probe.
But for the most part, Lewandowski’s combative squabbles with Democrats and refusal to answer questions overshadowed the role he played.
Still, Democrats say they were able to prove through staff questioning that Lewandowski is a liar who has repeatedly misled the public about his involvement with the president.
Democrats have voted to hold top Trump officials in contempt before. In July, the House voted on criminal contempt charges against Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for refusing to respond to Democratic subpoenas.
But the contempt votes did not lead to any serious consequences for Barr and Ross since the Justice Department, led by Barr, opted not to prosecute Trump’s Cabinet members.
If Democrats pursued contempt against Lewandowski, it’s unclear whether they would opt for the same criminal variety they applied to Barr and Ross. Johnson, for one, suggested Democrats may instead push for inherent contempt — a rarely used device authorizing both the House and Senate to “detain and imprison” an individual who refuses to comply with congressional demands, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Such an approach has not been used for nearly a century — employing the House sergeant-at-arms to go after Trump officials would be a highly unusual move — but some Democrats say the degree of stonewalling demands an aggressive response.
“We should be using every tool, and that includes fines,” Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) told The Hill.
Other Democrats said that charging Lewandowski with contempt will send a strong message to other Trump aides and associates.
Lewandowski “went in without any intent to answer any questions. It was somewhere between an audition for a political office and trying to get an extra-big Christmas card from Donald Trump,” Progressive Caucus Co-Chairman Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) told The Hill.
“At that point, we should have put him in a place we needed to,” he said. “That isn’t what a witness is supposed to do.”