Few genuinely believed that Donald Trump’s White House would cooperate with Congress’ impeachment inquiry with transparency and integrity. The question was how, and in what form, the president and his team would defy lawmakers’ authority to hold Trump accountable.
Yesterday afternoon, the answer came into sharp focus with a letter from White House counsel Pat Cipollone.
The White House refused Tuesday to turn over internal documents regarding Ukraine being sought by House Democrats as the Trump administration dug in against their impeachment inquiry.
In a defiant letter that echoed the president’s recent impeachment messaging – accusing Democrats of violating the Constitution and civil liberties and attempting to overturn the results of the 2016 election – the White House said it would not comply with the request from House Democrats because they were conducting an invalid investigation.
The full text of the eight-page letter is online here (pdf), and even by the standards of Trump World, this one’s a doozy. I’m a little surprised a White House counsel agreed to put his name on it, since it’s likely to do lasting harm to Cipollone’s reputation as a legal professional.
Indeed, it’s difficult to see the letter as even presenting a legal argument. In practice, it’s as if the president threw a tantrum; the White House legal team jotted down some of his poorly articulated rage; and shameless Republican attorneys tried to put a legal-ish veneer on Trump’s rant.
Gregg Nunziata, who served as legal counsel and a senior policy adviser to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), described Cipollone’s letter as “bananas” and a “barely-lawyered temper tantrum.” Nunziata added that “no member of Congress,” regardless of party or ideology, “should accept it.”
It’s that bad.
Going into yesterday afternoon, I’ll confess to being deeply curious as to what the White House counsel’s office was going to come up with, since the Republican talking points in recent weeks have been so hilariously unpersuasive. I assumed Cipollone’s letter to Congress would offer Team Trump an opportunity to put its best foot forward.
But if this is the best they’ve got, the White House is in trouble. The counsel’s office was reduced to arguing that the U.S. House’s impeachment process, established by the Constitution, is “unconstitutional” – a word the document repeated eight times – and the White House considers Congress’ process “illegitimate.” It therefore feels comfortable refusing to cooperate with the legal inquiry.
Reactions from the legal community were brutal. George Conway wrote, “I cannot fathom how any self-respecting member of the bar could affix his name to this letter. It’s pure hackery, and it disgraces the profession.” Former acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal Katyal called the White House’s letter “inane,” adding, “You don’t get to block impeachment just because you don’t like it.” Law professor Ryan Goodman, former special counsel at the Pentagon, described Cipollone’s letter as “a professional embarrassment.”
This may yet get worse before it gets better. In a call with reporters orchestrated by the White House, a senior administration official argued that before officials on Team Trump would agree to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, the president and his aides would require a “full halt” to the process.
Or put another way, after Congress stops the impeachment inquiry, Trump will consider cooperating with the impeachment inquiry.
As a rule, if the White House were confident in the president’s innocence, complete defiance wouldn’t be necessary. But in this case, Trump and those around him clearly have a great deal to hide.
The likelihood of the president’s impeachment inches closer to 100% every day.