As Nixon learned, Congress will not abide a president who defies its subpoenas.
The subpoenas against Nixon demanded 147 unedited tape recordings of presidential conversations; a list of meetings and telephone conversations for five specific, suspicious periods between 1971 and 1973; and copies of any handwritten presidential notes pertaining to the Watergate charges.
In response, Nixon asserted that the Judiciary Committee already had the “full story of Watergate,” and did not need to have further materials. He produced none of the 147 unedited transcripts that had been requested. (That bundle of withheld tapes included the critical June 23 tape that, when it was finally released, ultimately drove the president from office, and that Nixon had listened to many weeks earlier.)
.. In response, the committee approved Article III. It charged that the president “has failed without lawful cause or excuse to produce papers and things as directed by duly authorized subpoenas issued by the Committee.” Instead, it read, Nixon had substituted his own views as to what materials were necessary for the committee to render its judgment, and had interposed the powers of the presidency against the lawful subpoenas of the House of Representatives. His refusal to comply interfered with the committee’s ability to fulfill its constitutional duties and was, therefore, subversive of constitutional government.
.. President Trump has taken a similar approach to Nixon’s, declaring that the Mueller report should mean the end of any related congressional investigations, and that he would defy any subpoena that came from them. In response, congressional leaders have said they would take the matter to court.
That’s a good thing to do — to have the courts reaffirm what is already clear in the law — and Congress will probably win. But a court case could take months to conclude, playing into the president’s apparent strategy of running out the clock.
Rachel Bowen, associate professor of political science at Ohio State University and the author of The Achilles Heel of Democracy: Judicial Autonomy and the Rule of Law in Central America (Cambridge University Press, 2017), talks about the constitutional crisis inside Guatemala that is causing increased migration to the U.S.
It was William P. Barr’s confirmation hearing. But it was Robert S. Mueller III’s affirmation hearing.
President Trump had nominated Barr to be his new attorney general to shield him from Mueller’s hoax of a rigged witch hunt. But Barr spent much of his seven-hour confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday lavishing praise on his future boss’s tormentor. And Republicans, for the most part, didn’t defend Trump — and occasionally joined in the Mueller veneration.
None of this guarantees that Mueller will be able to complete his work unhindered, or that Americans will ever know what work he did. Ominously, Barr, while promising “as much transparency as I can consistent with the law,” suggested he might try to bury the special counsel’s report by treating it as confidential and releasing only “certain information” himself.
.. Still, Mueller’s de facto affirmation hearing should be of concern to Trump as the president tries to discredit whatever the special prosecutor comes up with in the coming weeks or months. Just about everybody but Trump regards Mueller as an upstanding man doing honest work. Even Trump’s potential new attorney general.
Barr described declining an earlier request to join Trump’s legal defense team, saying, “I didn’t want to stick my head into that meat grinder.” He recalled telling Trump at the time that “Bob is a straight shooter and should be dealt with as such.”
Regarding his “good friend” of three decades, Barr vowed unequivocally: “On my watch, Bob will be allowed to finish his work.” If ordered to fire Mueller without cause, he said, “I would not carry out that instruction.”
.. And what if Trump’s lawyers attempt to edit the Mueller report, as has been threatened? “That will not happen.” Barr warned that the president’s interference in cases involving himself and his associates could be unconstitutional or criminal. He even qualified his earlier memo criticizing parts of the Mueller investigation, saying, “I had no facts.”
Barr’s appearance seemed to have a calming effect on the panel so recently shredded by the Brett M. Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation. It was as though the appearance of the 68-year-old Barr, confirmed by the same committee 27 years ago to serve the same role in President George H.W. Bush’s administration, had transported the lawmakers to a kinder, gentler time. Instead of trading barbs, Democrats and Republicans took turns talking about the nominee’s grandson. (The 8-year-old’s “Dear Grandpa” note to the nominee mid-hearing was a hit.)
Maybe the bombshell reports over the weekend about Trump’s Russia ties had cowed the Republicans. Whatever the cause, they were disinclined to defend Trump. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) joined Democrats in pushing Barr for an expansive release of the Mueller report, saying, “The taxpayers ought to know what their money was spent for.”
And the chairman, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), usually a Trump loyalist, seemed to be trolling the president.
“Do you believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt against anybody?” Graham asked, invoking the president’s favorite phrase.
“I don’t believe Mr. Mueller would be involved in a witch hunt,” the nominee replied.
.. Asked whether then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions was right to recuse himself from the Russia investigation — a source of Trump’s fury — Barr replied: “I think he probably did the right thing recusing himself.”
“I agree,” Graham added, before poking fun at Trump’s lack of intellectual curiosity. “President Trump is a one-pager kind of guy,” he said.
“I suspect he is,” Barr concurred.
There was laughter in the hearing room at Trump’s expense.
Trump, no doubt encouraged by Barr’s earlier Mueller memo, hopes to be protected by his new attorney general. And it is possible Barr wasn’t being honest in his professed respect for Mueller and for transparency.
.. But why would Barr come out of retirement, instead of spending “cherished time” with grandchildren, to take a job he already had — only to become a villain for covering up Mueller’s findings?
“You seem like a rational person,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told Barr. “Why do you want this job?”
Indeed, he’s joining a president famous for chewing up once-respected figures and sending them packing in disgrace and humiliation. Trump reportedly referred to Sessions as “Mr. Magoo” and “mentally retarded” and demeaned him publicly.
Barr’s answer to Durbin should have sent chills down the presidential spine as he munched on leftover Big Macs at the White House.
The rule of law, Barr said, “is the heartbeat of this country,” and he vowed to “protect the independence and the reputation of the department.” Trump’s treatment of subordinates “might give me pause if I was 45 or 50 years old, but it doesn’t give me pause right now,” Barr continued. He added, “I will not be bullied into doing anything I think is wrong.”
Barr spent decades building his reputation. Why would he throw it away now by becoming the guy who buried the Mueller report?
The nominee to be attorney general has backed some of the president’s worst impulses on the Russia inquiry.
Not only has Mr. Barr already come perilously close to reassuring Mr. Trump that the president did not obstruct justice by trying to derail the investigation into whether his campaign conspired with Russia to corrupt the 2016 election, and that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, was overreaching, but he also has a long history of advancing an aggressive, expansive conception of presidential power.
He has made the case that a president can resist congressional oversight — a convenient position for Mr. Trump, but a concerning one for the country, now that Democrats are in charge of the House. He’s evenseen no problem with the president investigating a political opponent, saying there would be more validity in investigating Hillary Clinton for a uranium deal the government approved while she was secretary of state — which she had nothing to do with — than there was in investigating whether Mr. Trump conspired with Russia.
This theory of executive power has long been prized in conservative legal circles. But it will only empower a chief executive who has fought oversight since his first days in office and has rued the day that the special counsel was appointed after his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from the Russia investigation.
Mr. Barr cast further doubts about his appointment when he freelanced a memorandum to the Trump administration saying that the steps the president has continually taken to stymie a criminal probe he’s detested — firing the F.B.I. director James Comey, threatening to pardon associates who might cooperate with Mr. Mueller, or even using his “authority to start or stop a law enforcement proceeding” — were constitutionally legitimate. “Mueller’s obstruction theory,” he wrote, “would do lasting damage to the presidency.”
Given these past statements, it would be best if Mr. Barr, too, recused himself. But with the impending departure of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mr. Mueller and oversaw his investigation after Mr. Sessions’s recusal, it’s not clear if the inquiry would be any better protected in other hands. There should be tremendous pressure on Mr. Barr to allow Mr. Mueller free rein, both in investigating and in writing a final report.
Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told reporters on Wednesday that Mr. Barr assured him that he doesn’t think the special counsel is conducting a witch hunt and that he’d aim for transparency whenever Mr. Mueller delivers to him a final report on the special counsel investigation.
But is that assurance enough? And if Justice Department ethics officials conclude that Mr. Barr ought to cede supervision of the probe to avoid the “appearance” of bias, as they concluded in the case of the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, will Mr. Barr simply ignore them, as did Mr. Whitaker?
Mr. Barr recommended that President George H.W. Bush pardon Reagan administration officials convicted or implicated in the Iran-contra scandal, including former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. Would he object to Mr. Trump pardoning his former national security adviser Michael Flynn or Paul Manafort, whom Mr. Mueller has accused of giving polling data to an associate connected to Russian intelligence? Mr. Trump has certainly considered it.
But it is Mr. Barr’s approach to the investigation of the president that demands the most scrutiny. Under his view that the president controls Justice Department functions and can “start or stop a law enforcement proceeding,” he may well be committed to the idea that the president can do as he wishes with the Mueller investigation. Would he be willing to resign if Mr. Trump tried to shut that investigation down, as Attorney General Elliot Richardson did when President Richard Nixon ordered him to fire the Watergate special prosecutor?
At the very least, Mr. Barr can commit to standing up for the integrity of the office he aspires to hold. Despite the partial government shutdown, Mr. Mueller’s investigators continue to move ahead. And federal prosecutors in New York, Virginia and Washington remain hard at work, bringing cases that have arisen out of Mr. Mueller’s probe or that otherwise incriminate subjects at the center of it.
This commitment to justice serves as an example to all and ought to go on unimpeded.