This editorial originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune:
“The actions of the Trump presidency have revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections. Therefore, today, I am announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry.”
— U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sept. 24, 2019
“Given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the Executive Branch cannot be expected to participate in it. ... (Y)ou have left the President no choice. ... President Trump cannot permit his Administration to participate in this partisan inquiry ...”
— White House counsel Pat Cipollone in a letter to congressional Democrats, Oct. 8, 2019
The idea that President Donald Trump would declare the impeachment inquiry illegitimate and threaten not to cooperate with it has, for two weeks, been a simmering possibility. This president, like other fighters who live by the counterpunch, would rather throw down instead of throw in the towel.
His invocation of that option Tuesday added more disruption — and copious legal uncertainty — to an already disruptive episode in American history.
Yes, Trump can declare that House Democrats are mounting an illegitimate inquiry. That, as Cipollone charged in his letter, they want to overturn the 2016 election and preempt the one in 2020. That his White House won’t cooperate. But Trump doesn’t get the final word on all that. When the State Department told the House earlier Tuesday that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, wouldn’t appear for a planned deposition, House committees issued subpoenas.
Expect more brawling and, most likely, court showdowns between the executive and legislative branches.
How much of Tuesday’s jousting was real and how much theatrical? We don’t know if this is a pivotal point in the impeachment process or a skirmish that will be all but forgotten a week from now. Signaling the uncertainty beneath the bombast, The Wall Street Journal late Tuesday quoted a senior administration official as saying the White House was ordering a “full halt” on cooperating with the impeachment probe, while not ruling out potential future cooperation. Go figure.
But refusal to cooperate in a congressional quest is, at least on day one, a bad look for any president. Americans with memories of presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton have Pavlovian reactions whenever they see stone walls. The burden of proof for any refusal lies with the president who declares it.
Many of the White House assertions in the letter seem rooted more in politics than in constitutional law. That said, this is a political fight, as Speaker Pelosi signaled two weeks prior to Tuesday’s letter. That by itself is neither noble nor disgraceful: Impeachable crimes, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, are “denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”
Once again: We urge Speaker Pelosi to replicate the Nixon and Clinton cases’ protocols and have House members vote on whether to conduct an impeachment inquiry. A House debate, and subsequent vote, would help guide Americans as they shape their own views. And for those who’ll dislike whatever the House decides to do, a legitimizing vote now would make the outcome easier to accept.
For now, Trump essentially is asking Republicans to support him in what his opponents call a cover-up. We’ll all learn in coming days whether congressional members of his party stand by him or head for the exits. The companion risk for Democrats is that court fights over Trump’s stated refusal to cooperate could sabotage Pelosi’s reported statement in a closed meeting of Democrats that, lest an impeachment inquiry proceed casually, “we have to strike while the iron is hot.”
Trump will continue telling Americans that he’s the victim of a vast left-wing conspiracy. But if layers of federal judges say he’s the party who’s out of line here, we — and millions of our fellow Americans — will expect full compliance with the laws of the land.