Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Thursday that we are in the midst of a “constitutional crisis” created by Trump. While politicians are prone to hyperbole, she is not being so here. Trump refusing to cooperate with House investigations is not some mild political drama, but a defiance of our basic constitutional structure.
The legislature writes laws for the executive to enforce, and the judiciary interprets those laws so as to determine whether they are constitutional or not. A constitutional crisis arises when there is either a dispute over an interpretation of a provision in the constitution (which is not the case here), or when one of the branches fails to do its duty upon which others are dependent.
Congress doesn’t have a choice whether to oversee the president. It’s mandated in the constitution. The legislative branch must check the entire executive branch, including the Department of Justice, and Bill Barr and Donald Trump defying congressional subpoenas is quite literally unconstitutional, per Richard Nixon’s articles of impeachment. By stymieing Congressional oversight, the executive is creating a crisis for which the constitution has few answers for: if the executive refuses to enforce the law, who forces the executive to enforce the law?
Congressional oversight is really the only option we have here. So yes, Nancy Pelosi is right that Attorney General Bill Barr refusing to comply with congressional subpoenas does constitute a crisis, but she also should understand that this same logic leads some blame to her doorstep as well. Robert Mueller asked Congress to consider impeachment. It says so right there in the Mueller Report:
“With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers under Article II of the Constitution, we concluded that Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.”
To parse through the legalese: Robert Mueller was asked whether the president obstructed justice, and his response was “only Congress can give you an answer on that.”
Pre-Mueller Report, Speaker Pelosi said “I’m not for impeachment.”
Post-Mueller Report Speaker Pelosi? Per Politico:
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team are nowhere close to launching impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump — with the chances diminishing as the 2020 election moves ever closer.
If the executive branch defies the laws and the legislative branch will not utilize the strongest weapon it has against an intransigent executive (impeachment), then how can you stop the executive branch from continuing to defy the laws? That’s a constitutional crisis. Nancy Pelosi didn’t create it. Donald Trump and his lawless band of miscreants did. But she’s part of it now by virtue of her powerful position. By refusing to impeach Trump, she’s telling Trump (and future presidents) that he can continue to get away with impeachable offenses. Impeachment isn’t about removing Trump—it’s about demonstrating that only one party still believes in the constitutional framework of this nation.
Pelosi may want to wait until the next election, so as to keep up the Democrats’ impressive 40-year streak of not using power given to them, but the constitution tried to plan an agenda for each and every day, and each and every day from here until the election, Trump will almost certainly commit impeachable offenses—with tacit approval from the Speaker of the House.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.