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Team Trump pushes to make president immune from scrutiny

It's one thing when Trump's private attorneys argue that Congress lacks the authority to investigate him. It's worse when the White House counsel says it.
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. 

In a federal courtroom on Tuesday, some of Donald Trump's private attorneys, hired specifically to keep his personal finances secret, argued that practically all congressional oversight of presidential wrongdoing is illegal. Even if lawmakers were confronted with clear evidence of presidential corruption, Trump's lawyers argued, Congress would have no authority to launch an investigation.

At one point, the president's legal team suggested even the Watergate hearings on Capitol Hill may have been an illegal abuse.

Putting aside how absurd the argument was -- and how likely it is to fail in court -- there's an expectation that private attorneys will sometimes have to make audacious arguments in support of a client with a weak case. It's arguably more outrageous when the White House counsel's office peddles similarly bizarre claims.

The White House told the House Judiciary Committee in a letter Wednesday that it will not comply with a broad range of the panel's requests and called on it to "discontinue" its inquiry into President Donald Trump. [...][White House counsel Pat Cipollone] homed in on a rationale that the White House and Trump's business have made elsewhere: that Congress cannot conduct such oversight of the president unless it has a specific legislative purpose.

Cipollone's correspondence was not subtle: the White House intends to defy all subpoenas, deny Congress witnesses, reject all requests for documents, etc. His reasoning sounded familiar.

"Congressional investigations are intended to obtain information to aid in evaluating potential legislation," the White House counsel wrote, "not to harass political opponents or to pursue an unauthorized 'do-over' of exhaustive law enforcement investigations conducted by the Department of Justice."

The use of the word "unauthorized" was of particular interest: to hear Team Trump tell it, investigations launched by the legislative branch should apparently be approved by the executive branch in order to be legitimate.

So, where does that leave us?

Between Attorney General Bill Barr, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, and the president's private attorneys, we're supposed to believe that Donald Trump can't be charged with a crime, can't be investigated by Congress, and has the authority to end any investigation of which he disapproves.

This president, in other words, should effectively be seen as immune from scrutiny.

It was against this backdrop that the Washington Post's Aaron Blake raised an excellent point, pointing to a Justice Department document from 2000, which updated the original 1973 Office of Legal Counsel opinion on the inability to bring criminal charges against a sitting president.

It argued, among other things, that in the event of "suspicion of serious wrongdoing by a sitting President, the media and even Congress (through its own investigatory powers) would likely pursue, collect and preserve evidence as well." Or as Blake explained:

[I]n arguing that a president is exempted from indictment, the Justice Department pretty much states as a matter of fact that Congress can conduct its own investigation -- even stating flatly that it has "investigatory powers." And the powers it's describing clearly pertain to presidential wrongdoing, rather than some related legislative purpose.This, of course, is only an advisory opinion, so it's legal significance in the looming Trump court battles is up for debate. But it seems pretty telling that the Justice Department saw congressional investigations as a remedy for the lack of an ability to indict and prosecute a sitting president.Which makes the argument that the Trump team is making all the more remarkable and audacious.

In January 2016, Trump reflected on the loyalty of his followers and boasted, "I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn't lose any voters, okay? It's, like, incredible."

As Rachel explained on the show last night, it's worth revisiting that same quote now. It seems that Trump really could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and according to his legal team, there would be no way to hold him accountable so long as the president is in office.