Alas, poor Infrastructure Week!
Just when it looked like Infrastructure Week, Washington’s longest-running joke, was about to become a reality, President Donald Trump crushed everyone’s hopes by storming out of a meeting with congressional Democrats on May 22.
What followed was a singularly weird Rose Garden press conference, where Trump lamented Democrats’ use of the “I” word — that is, impeachment — and read excerpts from newspapers whose editorial boards (looking at you, Wall Street Journal) have been nice to him. He also attacked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for accusing him of being “engaged in a cover-up,” despite the fact that she’s currently the one holding her caucus back from impeachment.
Ultimately though, the big story out of last week was not the death of bipartisan infrastructure legislation — which was probably aspirational at best in the first place — but the extent to which the Mueller report, congressional hearings and the looming shadow the Impeachment Eagle™ still dominate Washington.
Specifically, the president promised what is effectively a legislative standstill until all investigations into his presidency — and there are lots of them — are halted. In his post-meeting press conference, Trump reiterated a version of his line from the 2019 State of the Union address: “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn't work that way!” Which, it should be noted, is incorrect. It does work that way.
Indifferent of the president’s reticence to do, you know, actual presidential things, congressional investigations into the Trump White House will likely continue for the foreseeable future. There are 11 underway, 10 of which are being conducted by the Democratic-controlled House.
Unfortunately for democracy (note the small “d”), the president and his administration are actively engaged in stonewalling all of them. Trump has asserted sweeping executive privilege over everything contained in or relating to the Mueller report, which the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed from the Justice Department in April.
Constitutionally speaking, executive privilege isn’t a thing. However, it’s long been invoked by presidents and recognized as a valid legal doctrine by the courts — mostly in regard to national security issues and presidential communications with close advisors.
Trump’s claim to executive privilege is substantially more broad than most previous instances. The closest example is President Richard Nixon’s invocation of executive privilege over White House tapes, which was resoundingly and unanimously struck down in United States v. Nixon.
But regardless of the uncertain future of Trump’s sweeping interpretation of executive privilege, it appears to be functioning exactly how the White House wants it to: former White House Counsel Don McGahn did not appear to testify in front of Rep. Jerry Nadler’s House Judiciary Committee last week at the instruction of the White House, and Attorney General William Barr has thus far flouted a subpoena for the full Mueller report, despite a contempt vote by the Judiciary Committee.
The Word That Must Not Be Named
In the absence of any real progress on the congressional investigations front though, momentum behind impeachment is starting to build in the Democratic caucus, despite opposition from Pelosi and much of Democratic leadership. Democrats remain divided, but some prominent names, including Nadler, whose Judiciary Committee would be responsible for launching any impeachment inquiry, have reportedly pushed party leadership to open impeachment proceedings. Several 2020 presidential candidates including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Beto O’Rourke have also come out in favor of impeachment, though others are still on the fence.
Perhaps more significant than that the increasing number of Democrats calling for impeachment is the lone Republican (yes, you read that right) who has endorsed impeachment proceedings. Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., is a libertarian Republican and a founding member of the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus, but nonetheless said on Twitter earlier this month that, after reading the Mueller report in its entirety, he had concluded that the president committed impeachable offenses.
His break from the Republican party line isn’t likely to be a watershed moment in the impeachment debate — after all, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell took to the floor earlier this month to declare “case closed.” Nonetheless, as the debate over Trump’s dreaded “I” word continues, Amash’s apostasy is noteworthy.
Of course, in the big picture, neither calls by Amash or congressional Democrats for impeachment will result from the president being removed from office. While articles of impeachment can be approved by a simple majority in the House of Representatives, it still takes a two-thirds majority to actually remove a president. As Democrats only have 45 seats in the Senate (plus two independents, senators Angus King, I-Maine, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who caucus with them), the conversation more or less ends there.
However, that doesn’t mean that all this still won’t result in impeachment, and despite Pelosi’s resistance, it certainly looks like the momentum is shifting in that direction.
Things could look very different when NBN resumes publication in the fall, so look for more Too Afraid to Ask coverage then.