WASHINGTON – The Oval Office’s occupant is President Donald Trump, but his battalion of private and taxpayer-funded lawyers are making arguments that may seem better suited for a King Donald I.
Trump’s private lawyers have argued that New York state prosecutors in Manhattan investigating hush-money payments to two women, as well as House members seeking Trump’s financial records, have no right to such information because he enjoys “presidential immunity.” Lawyers in his White House counsel’s office, meanwhile, call the ongoing impeachment inquiry illegitimate and have refused to cooperate with it.
“It’s hubris run amok. They’re feeling that their executive prerogative has no bounds,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, who added that while many presidents have asserted executive privilege, Trump and his Justice Department are interpreting it to mean that he is literally above the law. “I’ve never seen a president so brazen before. This takes executive power to sort of a dictatorial level.”
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University history professor and expert on authoritarian regimes, said the basis of Trump’s impeachment inquiry — his attempt to coerce a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent — is particularly alarming. “They don’t seem to want to leave the election to a fair and free vote,” she said. “They don’t even offer a real reason, which is another retreat from democracy.”
The White House declined to respond to HuffPost’s queries for this story.
I’ve never seen a president so brazen before. This takes executive power to sort of a dictatorial level.
Douglas Brinkley, presidential historian at Rice University
Trump, in an interview on his favorite morning television show Friday, again disparaged the inquiry himself. “It’s a hoax,” he told “Fox & Friends.” “This is a continuation of the witch hunt which has gone on from before I got elected.”
On Oct. 8, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone sent Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi an eight-page letter — replete with Trumpian phrasing —declaring that the House’s impeachment inquiry was illegal.
“Your highly partisan and unconstitutional effort threatens grave and lasting damage to our democratic institutions, to our system of free elections, and to the American people,” Cipollone wrote. “President Trump and his administration cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry under these circumstances.”
Based on that decree, senior administration officials including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Energy Secretary Rick Perry have refused to honor congressional demands to appear at the impeachment hearings. The White House and Trump’s executive branch agencies have refused to turn over requested documents.
Jordan Libowitz, whose group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed numerous lawsuits to force Trump’s agencies to disclose documents, said he understands Trump’s desire to keep negative information under wraps.
“Our founders designed three co-equal branches set to check and balance each other. If they wanted a king, they would have made a constitutional monarchy. They did not,” Libowitz said.
It’s uncertain whether Trump’s attempts to block people from testifying or releasing records will succeed. President Richard Nixon tried to block the release of certain recordings of his White House conversations, but the Supreme Court ruled against him — ultimately leading to his resignation. President Bill Clinton tried to avoid giving testimony in a lawsuit by a former Arkansas employee, but the high court ruled against him, too, resulting in his sitting for a deposition that became the basis for his impeachment in 1998.
Circuit Court Judge Robert Katzmann, author of a Nov. 4 ruling against Trump in a federal appeals court in New York, said that releasing presidential tax returns does not seem particularly burdensome. “We note that the past six presidents, dating back to President Carter, all voluntarily released their tax returns to the public,” Katzmann wrote. “While we do not place dispositive weight on this fact, it reinforces our conclusion that the disclosure of personal financial information, standing alone, is unlikely to impair the president in performing the duties of his office.”
The legal cases aside, Trump has already watched a parade of officials from within his executive agencies appear before investigators, offering both closed-door depositions and public testimony. White House officials realized that threatening to fire employees would be a public relations disaster. Further, a fired employee would at that point have no incentive to avoid testifying.
And those witnesses who have testified — including a trio of political appointees — have provided a trove of details confirming and giving context for the allegations in a whistleblower’s complaint that Trump had asked Ukraine’s president for politically useful investigations in a July 25 phone call.
“It is good to be king, but Trump will never know what that is like,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican political consultant who worked for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 presidential primaries.
According to witness testimony as well as the rough transcript of that phone call, Trump demanded that Ukraine investigate the Democrat he feared most in 2020 as well as support a conspiracy theory that falsely claims that Russian intelligence agencies did not help Trump win the 2016 election, but rather that it was Ukrainian officials who framed Russia by using fake evidence. He made the military aid to Ukraine contingent on its government publicly announcing the probes but then backed down after the White House learned that the whistleblower’s complaint was about to reach Congress.
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