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Facing tough questions, White House rejects congressional oversight

We've seen examples of tensions between the branches, but Trump is pushing the envelope, effectively denying the legitimacy of congressional oversight authority
The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty)
The sun rises near the White House on Nov. 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. 

Former White House Counsel Don McGahn not only cooperated with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, the Republican lawyer appears to have shared all kinds of interesting insights. McGahn spoke with investigators for dozens of hours, and in the redacted version of Mueller's report, the former White House counsel is cited more than 150 times.

In some of the episodes in which Donald Trump allegedly obstructed justice, the claims of suspected criminal misconduct are based heavily on what McGahn told investigators.

It was against this backdrop that the New York Times noted yesterday, almost in passing, that president is inclined to attack McGahn as a way "to protect himself from impeachment."

With this in mind, congressional Democrats would like to hear from the former White House counsel, whom they subpoenaed this week to offer sworn testimony, and who has important information about his former boss' alleged felonies. As the Washington Post reported, Trump is fighting to prevent lawmakers from speaking to McGahn.

President Trump on Tuesday said he is opposed to current and former White House aides providing testimony to congressional panels in the wake of the special counsel report, intensifying a power struggle between his administration and House Democrats.In an interview with The Washington Post, Trump said that complying with congressional requests was unnecessary after the White House cooperated with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's probe of Russian interference and the president's own conduct in office.

To hear the president tell it, McGahn spoke to Mueller, so there's no need for McGahn to also speak with Congress. Cooperating with one investigation is enough, the argument goes, and cooperating with two investigations is excessive. To that end, the president is apparently prepared to assert executive privilege, claiming conversations between Trump and the former White House counsel must be shielded.

There's no shortage of problems with this, starting with the simple fact that it's too late to assert privilege. As Rachel explained on the show, McGahn has already addressed the private conversations he had with the president, and the details of those conversations have already been made public. To claim executive privilege after the fact is to try to unring a bell.

For that matter, it's odd to hear the president argue that the White House cooperated so fully with the Mueller probe, when we already know that isn't true.

But let's also not overlook the larger context. Trump told the Post there's "no reason" to cooperate with lawmakers. That's the opposite of the truth.

I realize the president and his team were spoiled over the first two years of Trump's term, when the Republican-led Congress abandoned its oversight responsibilities altogether, but oversight of the executive branch is a principal function of the legislative branch.

It is this basic element of American governance that the president is eager to reject.

Indeed, ignoring the McGahn subpoena is serious, but it's also part of a larger pattern. Just this week -- a week that isn't yet half over -- Trump and his team have ignored a federal law on disclosing the president's tax returns, sued the chairman of the Oversight Committee in the hopes of keeping other Trump financial information secret, and ordered an administration not to testify to Congress on the White House's controversial handling of security clearances.

History offers plenty of examples of tensions between the branches when it comes to oversight, but this president is pushing the envelope, effectively denying the legitimacy of congressional oversight authority.

Much of this is likely to end up in the courts, where Trump may very well lose. But court fights tend to take time, and if the White House can resist oversight through delaying tactics, the president and his team apparently hope to run out the clock ahead of the 2020 elections.