On Tuesday, the White House announced that it would not cooperate whatsoever with an impeachment inquiry started by House of Representatives Democrats who are looking into whether the President is seeking to undermine the integrity of the 2020 election by soliciting campaign assistance from foreign powers. Although the Constitution grants the House of Representatives the power to bring forth articles of impeachment, and to issue subpoenas and compel witnesses to testify in order to do so, the Trump Administration has introduced the novel argument that Congress’s impeachment inquiry is illegitimate, and therefore the White House has no obligation to produce documents or allow witnesses to testify.
Following along those lines, the White House blocked a key witness, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, from being deposed, though Sondland expressed a clear interest in speaking with members of Congress. Representative Adam Schiff, one of the House committee chairmen leading the impeachment inquiry, has previously stated that any action taken by the White House to delay its inquiry would be interpreted as obstruction of justice, the basis of which one of the articles of impeachment against Nixon was formed.
The White House made this argument in the form of a scathing letter addressed to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in which White House counsel Pat Cipollone asserted the impeachment effort is nothing more than a partisan attack on the executive branch of government, motivated by Democrats wishing to undo the results of the 2016 election. The letter also asserts that the inquiry is unconstitutional and illegal, and represents a violation of civil liberties and the principle of separation of powers. The letter is a clear attempt by the administration to slow down the impeachment inquiry process, in the hopes that it becomes a long, drawn-out affair that ultimately hurts the Democratic Party’s favorability.
Democrats have responded by asserting that the letter’s criticisms of the inquiry are baseless and won’t hold up in court, and have indicated that they plan to follow through on their threat to include obstruction of justice charges among their articles of impeachment and that the administration’s refusal to cooperate would not slow down the pace of the inquiry, particularly considering the fact that damning evidence suggesting the President’s request of a foreign nation to interfere in the election is already publicly available.
The Trump campaign is already trying to take advantage of the impeachment inquiry in their re-election efforts by asserting in campaign advertisements that Trump is a victim of a partisan attack by Democrats intending to undermine his legitimacy as President. The longer the impeachment inquiry plays out, the more the campaign will be able to send this message, making the strategy of delaying the investigation as much as possible more fruitful. The Trump campaign has already raised a tremendous amount of money, totalling more than $300 million this year alone, meaning that the campaign will be able to send a message of victimhood broadly using social media and other outlets for as long as necessary.
The White House’s strategy is risky, especially considering the fragile legal ground its argument stands on. A clear majority of the US population supports the impeachment inquiry, even in these early stages of the investigation, with one poll indicating that 58% of Americans support impeaching Trump. The administration’s outright refusal to participate in the inquiry is likely to drive this number even higher, as an unwillingness to testify and produce evidence suggests the presence of a consciousness of guilt, and many Americans recognize obstruction of justice as an impeachable offense. Several commentators have characterized the administration’s response as a constitutional crisis, defined as a conflict between the branches of government that the Constitution has no mechanism to resolve, which is a breakdown of the fundamental structure of government. We are certainly in uncharted waters, as this is only the fourth impeachment inquiry in American history, and the first one in which both opposing sides are totally unwilling to cede any ground in the conflict.