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.