The White House’s impeachment blockade
The White House drew the battle lines for an unprecedented constitutional struggle this week, announcing it would refuse to cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry on President Trump and would ignore subpoenas for testimony and official documents. In a defiant eight-page letter to House Democratic leaders, White House counsel Pat Cipollone denounced the impeachment proceedings as a “constitutionally illegitimate” attempt to undo the 2016 election. House Democrats have accused Trump of illegally using $400 million in military aid to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pursue an investigation of his Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter, citing a transcript of a Trump-Zelensky phone call as proof. Cipollone dismissed such claims as “baseless.” But last week, Trump stood on the White House lawn and publicly called on both Ukraine and China to investigate the Bidens.
The State Department blocked Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, from testifying before the House. Text messages obtained by Congress showed Sondland worked with other diplomats and the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to get Zelensky to commit to a statement announcing the investigations sought by Trump. Sondland suggested the statement was a precondition for an invitation to the White House, which Zelensky desperately wanted. “I think potus [Trump] really wants the deliverable,” Sondland wrote to Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker.
Texts show that diplomats were alarmed by the White House’s arm-twisting of Zelensky, which included a nearly two-month delay in the delivery of military aid. “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” the Ukrainian Embassy’s chargé d’affaires William Taylor texted to Sondland in September. Sondland reportedly conferred with the White House and then denied that the president was seeking any quid pro quo before writing, “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.” House Democrats warned the Trump administration that stonewalling the investigation would be treated as evidence of obstruction of justice and would become part of impeachment charges. “Mr. President, you are not above the law,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “You will be held accountable.”
What the editorials said
President Trump has taken “his contempt for the rule of law to a new level,” said the Los Angeles Times. Arguing the impeachment inquiry is illegitimate is laughable. Under the Constitution, the House sets its own rules and procedures for impeachment proceedings. There’s no requirement that the House vote to authorize a formal inquiry, as the White House is demanding. Besides, Trump was directing aides to stonewall congressional investigations even before the impeachment inquiry began. “If he has nothing to hide, why isn’t he cooperating?” Actually, “precedent is on the White House’s side here,” said the New York Post. The full House voted to open formal impeachment inquiries into Presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, setting clear rules that gave the president’s defenders the right to call their own witnesses. But Speaker Pelosi is creating her own rules, questioning witnesses behind closed doors and using selective leaks to damage the president as much as possible in the court of public opinion. “The White House is entirely right to call out Pelosi’s game.”
What the columnists said
Trump’s “every response to impeachment proves its necessity,” said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com. Trump continues to brazenly commit impeachable acts in public, such as inviting foreign countries to interfere in our elections and then insisting he has “the absolute right” to do so. And “the story can get worse.” There were reportedly other calls between Trump and foreign leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that so alarmed Trump’s aides that the recordings were moved to a top-secret server. Unable to defend himself on the facts, Trump is hiding behind the nonsensical argument that investigating him is “literally illegal.” Trump isn’t obstructing justice, said Andrew McCarthy in NationalReview.com. “Of course the White House is not going to start surrendering records” just because Congress started issuing subpoenas. You can refuse to honor a subpoena if you can make a legal argument to avoid compliance. The Ukraine matter is in the realm of foreign relations, “the place where the president’s constitutional power and privileges are at their most formidable.” It’s up to the courts to hash this out, which means we’re in for a lengthy legal battle.
The White House’s actual legal argument is “preposterous,” said Paul Waldman in The Washington Post. The Cipollone letter—which sounds like it was written by a seventh-grader—repeatedly whines that the House isn’t being “fair” to Trump, so he’s entitled to nullify a process spelled out in the Constitution. Trump’s critics have long feared the day when his narcissism and authoritarian instincts would threaten the very nature of our democratic system. “That constitutional crisis has arrived.”
The deluge of damaging revelations “appears to be sticking” to Trump, said Philip Bump in The Washington Post. A new poll shows that 58 percent of Americans now support the impeachment inquiry, while 49 percent think Congress should remove him from office. Most alarming for Trump, his Republican support appears to be eroding. Roughly 28 percent of GOP voters now support the impeachment investigation—a 21-point increase since July—while 18 percent say he should be removed from office. “The Republican Senate, resting on the bedrock of Donald Trump’s base, has been viewed as an unbreachable wall,” said Gabriel Sherman in VanityFair.com. But there are signs it’s beginning to crack. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who publicly called Trump’s entreaties to Ukraine and China “wrong and appalling,” has reportedly been privately sounding out other moderate Republicans about voting to convict Trump in an impeachment trial in the Senate. “Romney is the one guy who could bring along Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, Ben Sasse,” a GOP adviser said. “That’s why the things he’s saying are freaking Republicans out.”
Cover illustration by Howard McWilliam.
On the cover: Supreme Court Justices Brett M. Kavanaugh, John G. Roberts Jr., and Neil M. Gorsuch.
Cover photos from AP, Getty, AP ■