WASHINGTON — They’re talking about jailing people at the Capitol. Imposing steep fines. All sorts of extraordinary, if long-shot measures to force the White House to comply with Democratic lawmakers’ request for information about President Donald Trump stemming from the special counsel’s Russia investigation.
This is the remarkable state of affairs between the executive and legislative branches, unseen in recent times, as Democrats try to break through Trump’s blockade of investigations and exert congressional oversight of the administration.
“One of the things that everybody in this country needs to think about is when the president denies the Congress documents and access to key witnesses, basically what they’re doing is saying, Congress you don’t count,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
“We cannot — we simply cannot — have a presidency that is run as if it were a king or a dictator in charge,” said Cummings, D-Md.
Trump’s blanket refusal to engage in oversight — and Democrats’ unrelenting demand that he do so — is testing the system of checks and balances with a deepening standoff in the aftermath of Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Trump derides the oversight of his business dealings and his administration as “presidential harassment” and has the backing of most Republicans in Congress. With Mueller’s work completed, Trump wants closure to what he has long complained was a “witch hunt.”
“No more costly & time consuming investigations,” Trump tweeted.
Stunned by the administration’s refusal to allow officials to testify or respond to document requests, lawmakers have been left to think aloud about their next steps against the White House.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee chairman, has given Attorney General William Barr a Monday deadline to comply with a subpoena demanding a redacted version of Mueller’s report, along with its underlying evidence, or face a contempt charge.
Barr could face another subpoena to appear before Nadler’s committee after skipping a hearing Thursday in a dispute over the rules for questioning him. Nadler, D-N.Y., also has subpoenaed testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn.
Cummings is considering what to do on several fronts, including about testimony from Carl Kline, the White House’s personnel security director. Cummings said Kline declined last week to answer specific questions in a closed-session hearing about the security clearances granted for White House advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the president’s son-in-law and daughter. Also, the House Ways and Means Committee is being refused access to Trump’s tax returns.
Republicans are largely declining to join Democrats in pursuing the investigations any further.
“It is over,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as Barr testified last week before the committee. Graham, R-S.C., has asked Mueller to respond to Barr’s testimony, particularly after the disclosure of a letter the special counsel sent Barr complaining about attorney general’s summary of the 400-plus page Russia report.
The rejection of oversight is the latest and perhaps most high-profile example of the new normal in the Trump era. Gone are the daily White House press briefings, once a fixture in Washington. Top department vacancies go unfilled, leaving fewer officials to respond to congressional requests. Agencies across the government seem more insular than before.
Princeton professor Julian E. Zelizer said what’s unfolding between the White House and Congress “fits in a long history of bad moments when the branches clash over vital information.”
While other presidents, including Barack Obama, have resisted congressional oversight in certain situations, including during Attorney General Eric Holder’s blockade of the “Fast and Furious” gun-running investigation, Zelizer said “Trump is going further by saying no to everything.”
To Zelizer, “certainly there are echoes of Watergate when the administration did everything possible to stonewall Congress as they undertook legitimate investigations and hearings into presidential corruption.”
He said presidents with “too much power” can easily make decisions that undermine government operations in everyday lives. “Should citizens care? Of course, the restraint of presidential power is an essential part of our Constitution and the health of our democracy,” Zelizer said.
Impeachment is being shelved, for now. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her leadership team are taking a step-by-step approach to the White House standoff, declining any rush to impeachment proceedings, as some in her party want, for a more incremental response.
Pelosi did note this past week that obstructing Congress was one of the articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon.
“Impeachment is never off the table, but should we start there?” Pelosi said Friday. “I don’t agree with that.”
Short of that, lawmakers are considering options for Barr and others. There’s a long history of lawmakers holding officials in contempt. They can sue for compliance with the threat of fines. Some lawmakers are suggesting censuring the attorney general or impeaching him. Others have called for Barr to resign.
And then there’s talk of jail time.
Capitol Hill has been buzzing about the unlikely prospect of using a jail that some say exists somewhere in the Capitol and that was used in the past to detain those in contempt of Congress.
But the House and Senate say no such facility exists.
“No evidence suggests that any room in the Capitol was ever designated for use as a jail,” says an entry on the House website’s historical pages.
During the Civil War, some Confederate soldiers and others were held at a brick building on the site of what’s now the Supreme Court, across the street from the Capitol, that was often referred as the “Capitol Prison” or “Old Capitol Jail,” according to the history page.
Otherwise, those found in contempt “were almost certainly held temporarily in the offices of the Sergeant at Arms, locked in committee anterooms, or put under guard at local hotels,” it says.
Senate Historian Betty Koed said in the past, the District of Columbia’s jail facility has also been used for detentions. “There is no Senate jail,” she said.
Lawmakers remain undeterred. Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of party leadership, said lawmakers have “a whole range of options.”