Democrats Vow to Enforce Subpoenas as Trump Resistance Grows
Democrats are steeling for a no-holds-barred fight with President Donald Trump as the White House ignores subpoenas, denies access to witnesses and otherwise stonewalls congressional oversight in the aftermath of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.
In the latest case, Trump, his family and the Trump Organization have filed a lawsuit against Deutsche Bank and Capital One attempting to thwart congressional subpoenas into his financial and business dealings, asserting the requests are out of bounds.
That comes as Trump's Treasury Secretary is declining to produce the president's tax returns, Attorney General William Barr is threatening to back out of his agreement to appear this week before the Judiciary Committee and former White House Counsel Don McGahn and other officials are being told not to testify before Congress.
The standoff pits the legislative and executive branches in a constitutional showdown not seen since the Watergate era. Neither side is expected to back down. Trump says since Mueller finished his report of Russian interference into the election, there's no further need to investigate. And while Democrats say it's their duty to conduct oversight and are adamant that they will win in the end, they are also confronting the limits of their own enforcement powers.
"He's prepared to fight us tooth and nail. And we're prepared to fight him back," said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Ca., the chairwoman of the Financial Services Committee. "He obviously has something to hide."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is urging the committee chairmen to push forward with their oversight agendas, shelving for now calls from the left flank to launch impeachment hearings against Trump.
Congress has a range of tools available to try to force compliance from the White House, either through civil lawsuits compelling administration officials to testify or produce documents, or by holding others in contempt of Congress with fines or even, in rare cases, jail time.
On Tuesday, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, Adam Schiff, made a criminal referral to the Justice Department about Erik Prince, the founder of the security firm Blackwater, alleging he lied to the committee in 2017.
Schiff said Tuesday there is strong evidence that Prince, a prominent supporter of Trump, "willingly misled" the intelligence committee as it probed connections between Trump's campaign and Russia.
"The evidence is so weighty that the Justice Department needs to consider this," Schiff said.
Congress is buckling in for several actions in the aftermath of Mueller's report, which did not find that Trump or his campaign knowingly conspired with Russia in the 2016 election. But the report pointedly did not clear the president of obstruction of justice and, in fact, recounted 10 instances where Trump tried to interfere with the investigation.
For lawmakers, their ability to conduct oversight of the White House is a core responsibility that extends beyond investigating the president into agency actions that can touch the lives of Americans.
"If the executive branch can deny the legislative branch the ability to bring witnesses to testify under oath and for the production of documents, the executive branch will have essentially eliminated the oversight function of Congress," said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Yet while Democrats have vowed to go to court, those proceedings could last years, possibly past Trump's tenure. And if they chose to hold officials in criminal contempt, which would take a vote of the full House, it would be referred to Department of Justice officials unlikely to side with the Democrats.
Some Democrats have thrown out other options: daily fines for not showing up, for example, or cutting appropriations for an official's agency. But those ideas might not be politically popular.
There's also an option that would be even more contentious and hasn't been used in decades — trial and even imprisonment by Congress. Called "inherent contempt," this process was often used in the country's early years but hasn't been employed in almost a century. While Democrats have vowed to use all of the available legal tools, they have shown no interest in going that far.
Despite drawbacks, Democrats say they will have to fight on multiple fronts to get the witnesses and documents they need.
"If you let them get away with this, then what do you have?" said House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings on Monday. "If the president can get away with blocking any information and anybody from testifying before the Congress, what road are we going down?"
Schiff and Waters, whose committees subpoenaed Deutsche Bank and others in April over the president's finances, said in a joint statement that Trump's "unprecedented stonewalling will not work."
Schiff said he wants to know whether Russians used laundered money for transactions with the Trump Organization. Trump's businesses have benefited from Russian investment over the years.
Eric Trump, executive vice president of The Trump Organization, called Democrats "deranged" and the subpoenas a form of "presidential harassment."
In the other incident stemming from Schiff's committee, Prince testified to the panel that a meeting in the Seychelles islands with a Russian with ties to President Vladimir Putin was a chance encounter.
Mueller's report said investigators couldn't iron out the "conflicting accounts" about the meeting. Prince told Mueller's investigators that he had briefed Bannon about it, but Bannon told them they never discussed it. Part of the problem is that text messages between them were missing.