Yesterday, attorneys for President Trump made an astonishing argument in federal court. Congress had no right to look at Trump’s tax returns, they argued, because it had no right to investigate or even expose matters relating to law enforcement of the White House. The judge asked whether this meant episodes like the Watergate hearings were an unconstitutional exercise of power by Congress, and Trump’s lawyer conceded they might have been.
Trump’s official position is that Congress has no business looking into whether the president has broken the law. When you combine this position with the long-standing Department of Justice policy that it cannot indict a sitting president, and Attorney General William Barr’s position that the president is entitled to shut down any investigation he considers unfair, you have built a wall of legal impunity for the president.
blanket arguments against Congress’s ability to subpoena witnesses and documents. Barr himself refused to answer a question from Senator Kamala Harris as to whether he had been told to investigate anybody, and then refused to appear at a hearing held by the House the next day. All modern presidents have tangled with Congress about the scope of its investigative reach, but none before Trump have completely denied the legitimacy of this function. Trump’s claims that Congress cannot investigate him because it’s not “impartial,” and that its alleged motive of harassing him disqualifies it, do not merely quibble with particular subpoenas or topics. He is dismissing all investigations run by people who aren’t his allies (which, of course, means all investigations).
profile of Barr explains how he has long stood at the forefront of the legal movement to establish presidential supremacy, a worldview that happens to dovetail conveniently with Trump’s utter disdain for any limits on his prerogatives.
Hamburger also points out as an aside that Barr has not always maintained this position with perfect consistency. During the Clinton administration, the president was hounded by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who began by looking into Clinton’s land deals as governor of Arkansas, and wound up charging him for lying under oath about a sexual affair. Starr’s probe was widely considered so abusive it prompted a change in the law authorizing an independent counsel.
signed a letter insisting an independent counsel “should be allowed to carry out his or her duties without harassment by government officials and members of the bar.” (The “harassment” faced by Starr came in the form of criticism by Clinton’s supporters, a comically mild measure in comparison with the campaign of obstruction undertaken by Trump against Robert Mueller.) The man who today defends Trump’s right to shut down an investigation because he considers it fake news accused Clinton of having an “improper purpose of influencing and impeding an ongoing criminal investigation and intimidating possible jurors, witnesses and even investigators.”
At the time, Starr’s investigation had attained the status of holy crusade among Republicans. Conservative intellectuals routinely declared that “the rule of law” required not only protecting Starr’s infinitely broad mandate but impeaching and removing Clinton for perjuring himself about his affair. Starr himself built a cult of personality that nearly matched the status commanded today by Trump himself. One House Republican unironically composed and sang an ode to the party’s idol on the House floor. To the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star,” he sang, “Twinkle, twinkle, Kenneth Starr, now we see how brave you are …”
Starr leveraged his fame to win the presidency of Baylor University, where he presided over a rape scandal so comprehensive and sickening it forced his resignation. He has remade himself again as a Republican legal pundit. These days he can be found attacking Mueller for “special counsel overkill” without any trace of irony.
sued Obama over his czars, and Representative Steve Scalise likened him to a “dictator.”
Republicans conducted endless, redundant probes of various conspiracy theories, refusing to stop when they were debunked. House Republicans conducted six investigations into Benghazi alone. In the fall of 2016, Jason Chaffetz, head of the House Oversight Committee, boasted that he had already teed up “years” of investigations against the presumptive next president, Hillary Clinton.
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