Trump's subpoena obstruction has fractured the Constitution's system of checks and balances

Millions of Americans voted in favor of a stronger check on power by ushering in a new Democratic majority in the House. That mandate is being ignored.
Donald Trump,Mitch McConnell
President Donald Trump and Sen, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are no longer interested in following the Constitution.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file
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By Kurt Bardella, NBC News THINK contributor

Thursday, May 2, 2019, felt like the end of checks and balances in America. It was the day that the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee stood by and supported the executive branch’s decision to ignore a lawful subpoena issued by the legislative branch. At this moment in time, we no longer really have co-equal branches of government. And without this system, created with care by the Founding Fathers, we edge ever close to a dictatorship.

I spent five years working for Republicans on the House Oversight Committee during the Obama administration and I can tell you the level of blatant obstruction we are seeing from Trump and his cronies is on a totally different level from what the GOP was dealing with. At this point, the only real recourse for Democrats is to compel cooperation is to initiate impeachment proceedings and activate broader powers to enforce their subpoenas as Congress did with President Richard Nixon. This executive branch is flagrantly undermining the legislative branch. And it clearly thinks it can get away with it.

This executive branch is flagrantly undermining the legislative branch. And it clearly thinks it can get away with it.

Our entire federal system is predicated on the idea that fidelity to our constitutionally mandated rules of governance supersedes political party. That even in the most partisan of environments, Republicans and Democrats acknowledge and respect the role that the branches of government play in limiting absolute power. But what happens when that respect is obliterated? When one branch of government decides to go rogue and ignore the constitutional authority of another?

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Unfortunately, this is no longer a theoretical exercise to be examined and debated in the safe confines of a civics class. It is happening right now, before our very eyes.

Democracy is about choice. The people who serve in Congress weren’t installed by decree or birthright, but by a free vote of free people. By ignoring the authority of the Congress, Trump and his followers are ignoring the will of the American people. By shutting out the legislative branch, Trump and his administration are thumbing their noses at the Framers’ framework, and everything it represents.

If there is a policy this White House does not like, it unilaterally changes it. If there’s a question Trump officials don’t want to answer, they don’t show up, as Attorney General William Barr did. If there’s information they want to keep hidden from the American people, they sue a co-equal branch of government to keep it secret.

And the problem is just getting worse. Barr, who sounds increasingly like a White House spokesperson and not top law enforcement officials, defied a subpoena to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on May 2. The Department of Trump — I mean, Justice — ignored a subpoena deadline to produce to Congress the unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report and the underlying evidence used to compile it. This prompted House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., to send a final counteroffer to Barr. But on Monday, Barr again failed to comply with the subpoena; the committee will vote to hold him in contempt on Wednesday.

Also last week, the White House informed House Democrats that it would not comply with a request for documents related to security clearances. Our Supreme Leader — I mean President, Donald J. Trump — has sued two banks in an effort to block them from complying with subpoenas from the House Oversight Committee related to his and his family’s finances.

Partisanship and obstruction is sadly not uncommon in America’s political system. But by continuing to push the boundaries, Trump has exposed a flaw within the framework of our political composition. Congress is effectively powerless to make the executive branch do anything. They can issue subpoenas. Those subpoenas can be ignored. They can hold people in contempt. But of course, any U.S. attorney capable of prosecuting contempt can be fired by the attorney general. If they go to court, it’ll take years to get resolved.

Moreover, when it comes to Trump and Congressional Republicans, there is little good faith left — if any. There certainly isn’t much trust. With the backing of the White House, Republicans believe they can effectively bully Democrats. And Democrats, led by the conventionally cautious wisdom of lawmakers like Rep. Nancy Pelosi, are increasingly trapped by the process. If they remain unwilling to deviate from conventional tactics, they will not be able to gain much progress in these very unconventional times.

Last November, millions of Americans voted in favor of having a stronger check on power by ushering in a new Democratic majority in the House. They voted to give Democrats the power of the congressional gavel, the power to issue subpoenas, the power to conduct vigorous oversight. That mandate is being ignored by the president and his henchmen. It is up to Democrats to protect and defend the will of the people and they must do so boldly. There is no place for traditional tactics or negotiations. We are in the midst of a national crisis — a real one, not the manufactured one at the southern border. Who will stand up for the Republic?

CORRECTION (May 5, 2019, 3:33 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of the 37th U.S. president. He was Richard Nixon, not Ricard.