The federal government of the United States is in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Some would have you believe the crisis was instigated by angry Democrats, seeking revenge for their loss in the 2016 presidential election. This is disinformation being perpetrated by the Trump-GOP-Fox propaganda machine. Despite what they want the country to believe, the truth is out there for anyone willing to seek it.
The Essence of the Constitution
Our system of government, as well as our highest ideals, are prescribed in the the United States Constitution. It’s the supreme law of the land; it supersedes all other laws within our country, states, and territories.
The constitution laid out a framework for governing by installing three co-equal branches of government: the legislative branch (i.e. Congress), the executive branch (i.e. the Presidency), and the judicial branch (i.e. the Supreme Court).
Article I of the constitution assigns the powers and responsibility for the legislative branch. Article II assigns the powers and responsibility for the executive branch. Article III formed the Supreme Court, which is responsible for interpreting and ruling over contestations to the constitution.
These branches are equal by law, so one may not overpower the other. The founders were wary of a single president becoming too powerful, so they ensured the Congress and Supreme Court had the authority to check and balance the Presidency.
Every government official, both elected and appointed, swear an oath before entering their respective office. The protection and defense of the constitution is the basis for the oath. The act of taking an oath gives weight to the priority and importance of the constitution.
The President’s oath is to “…preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Members of congress swear a similarly-worded oath, “… [to] support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…”
The Road to the Constitutional Crisis
After Donald Trump took the presidential oath of office, there were many who thought his bullying and brash campaign antics would dissipate and he would –as all presidents have done before– rise to the occasion, putting aside pettiness and vindictive behavior for the good of the country. There were many who thought he would temper the furor of his base and become a leader for all Americans. As we’ve seen, this has not happened.
One of Trump’s first attacks was against the free press. He despised any news coverage that wasn’t favorable to him. He’s attacked the press consistently throughout his presidency, going as far as calling them “the enemy of the people” on numerous occasions. The press is protected under the First Amendment of the constitution. This wasn’t a constitutional crisis yet because he wasn’t actively trying to censor them. He has, however, done his best to discredit the press with the intention of manipulating the public’s trust in the greatest democratic institution outside of the federal government. The press is referred to as the “fourth estate,” as a way of symbolizing its critical role to our democracy; acting as an unofficial fourth branch.
The Russian government’s attack on our democracy is a fact. Before there was a special counsel investigation, 17 of our intelligence agencies (e.g. FBI, CIA, NSA, etc.) confirmed Russia had interfered in our election. When sources began reporting contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, the FBI initiated an investigation.
It wasn’t long before Trump fired James Comey, the Director of the FBI. Comey was the top law enforcement official investigating the Russian interference, as well as the potential that the Trump campaign had a role in it. Soon after Comey’s firing came the firing of the Acting Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe. With the federal government in a state of crisis due to the firings of the heads of the agency tasked with investigating the president, the questioning of the rule of law had to be answered to maintain the public’s trust in the federal government.
Jeff Sessions, Trump’s original attorney general, was compelled to recuse himself from the FBI investigation since he was a member of the Trump campaign. Therefore, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, took control of overseeing the investigation from the Department of Justice. He appointed Robert Mueller as the special counsel, tasked with taking over the FBI’s investigation.
After nearly two years, the Mueller team completed their investigation. A 448-page report was submitted to the current attorney general, Bill Barr. Two years of round-the-clock investigating by a team of some of the country’s best lawyers, investigators, and analysts was summed up in a 4-page summary in merely two days.
We would later learn that the Barr summary was a misleading document intended to obscure and minimize Mueller’s findings. Barr held the report for a month, claiming he needed time to make redactions. This gave the Trump administration time to use the Barr summary as a way of swaying public opinion. Trump boasted he had been “exonerated” and most of the country was either confused or misled to believe the investigation was a “witch hunt” as Trump has often described it.
After the redacted report was submitted to the public, it became evident that Barr’s farce was beginning to crumble, along with Trump’s claims of exoneration. In congressional committees, the public saw firsthand that Barr was not forthcoming in his testimony. He told the Congress that he didn’t know how Mueller felt about his summary. This was a lie. The New York Times and Washington Post obtained letters Mueller had written to Barr in the days following the release of the Barr summary. In those letters, Mueller did express his feelings about the memo. He wrote that the summary didn’t “…fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s works and conclusions.”
The Constitutional Crisis
With the revelations in the redacted Mueller Report, there was real concern among congressional Democrats that Trump was abusing his presidential powers. Mueller found 10 instances of possible obstruction of justice in his report.
Barr was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. If anyone wasn’t sure of Barr’s intent before the hearing, they were after. In his testimony, he contradicted the report’s findings. He was evasive and unforthcoming with his carefully-worded, though sometimes tongue-tied, testimony. It was clear he was supporting and defending Trump’s interests, rather than impartially serving as the country’s attorney general. Barr was scheduled to testify before a House congressional panel the following day. He refused to appear. He hasn’t appeared before Congress since.
For the past 40 years, every president has voluntarily made their tax returns public –every president until Donald Trump. Presidential candidates voluntarily release their tax returns as an act of good faith, showing the public exactly where their money is coming from and to whom they may be indebted to. It’s meant to expose, and therefore prevent, any conflicts of interest.
Trump has been using the excuse for years now that he can’t release his tax returns because he’s under audit. Regardless of whether or not that’s true, which it likely isn’t, federal law states that the Congress can obtain the tax returns of any American –including the president. So, in the middle of the Barr controversy, when a House committee –exercising their constitutional duty of oversight over the executive branch– requested Trump’s tax returns from the Department of the Treasury. Steve Mncuchin, Trump’s Treasury secretary, missed the deadline for turning over the tax returns and has since said he will refuse to turn them over, saying it “lacks any legitimate legislative purposes.” This excuse has no merit since it’s the purpose of the Oversight Committee to perform oversight.
The House Oversight Committee also sent out subpoenas to Capital One and Deutsche Bank for Trump’s financial records. This was done in order to get more information on Trump’s business ties, particularly with foreign entities, which is again to ensure Trump isn’t compromised due to conflicts of interest. Since Trump can’t order a corporation to refuse the subpoenas, he resorted to suing Elijah Cummings, the Chairman of the Oversight Committee. This will tie the matter up in the courts –a tactic Trump is infamous for.
The House Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena to testify to Don McGahn, Trump’s former White House Counsel. McGahn was a key witness to many of the obstruction of justice instances in the Mueller Report. On May 2, 2019, Trump declared he wouldn’t allow McGahn to testify before the committee.
The Judiciary Committees also issued subpoenas to obtain the full, unredacted Mueller Report, along with all of the report’s underlying evidence, but that subpoena has also been ignored by Barr. Trump has claimed executive privilege over the entire Mueller Report and all of its underlying evidence. The power of executive privilege is used by presidents to keep sensitive information from being made public so the government can function without being impaired. This is a nonsensical argument since the information has already been uncovered and made its way into the report. It’s akin to trying to put the proverbial toothpaste back in the tube.
In response to Barr’s refusal to appear before the House Judiciary Committee and his disregard for congressional subpoenas, on May 8, 2019, the committee voted to hold Barr in contempt of Congress. The contempt charge will soon be brought to the floor for the entire House to vote on.
On that same day, May 8th, the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena to Donald Trump, Jr. in reference to the now infamous Trump Tower meeting he had with Russians during the campaign. Donald Trump, Jr. has since remarked that he may ignore the subpoena or exercise his Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate himself.
After the vote to hold Barr in contempt of Congress, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee declared, “We are now in a constitutional crisis.”
Why a Constitutional Crisis is Serious
If the Congress is consistently and blatantly being defied by the Trump administration, then the sanctity of the constitution is at risk –our whole system of government is at risk. If the power of the Congress is being nullified by the Trump administration, and it’s permitted to stand, we’re no longer a democratic republic. Chairman Nadler touched on this after the contempt vote, “Now is the time of testing whether we can keep a republic, or whether this republic is destined to change into a different, more tyrannical form of government.”
This should be a grave concern to all Americans, regardless of political ideology. The Senators and Representatives in Congress are our elected officials. They’re there to represent the People. Therefore, an attack on the Congress is an attack on the People. If the Congress is reduced to a non-binding body and is losing power, the Trump administration is absorbing those powers.
We cannot permit these tyrannical acts to go unchecked. Democracies aren’t made of steel; they’re made of glass. All it takes is a few cracks until the whole system of government comes shattering down. A millennia ago, Plato warned that democracies are a prelude to tyranny. Our founders understood this, and designed the constitution accordingly, but if the constitution isn’t protected, defended, and ultimately enforced, Plato’s warning will become a realized prophecy.
The founders and revolutionaries used both the pen and the sword to fight for their independence, breaking the monarchical bonds of the British Empire. Blood has been shed by millions of Americans fighting for values like freedom and justice. If our elected representatives have little or no power, then our freedom is slipping away. If our system of justice is being used to protect and defend the president, there’s no longer justice for all. If this constitutional crisis becomes a constitutional calamity, we’ll be living in a very different country, as will the untold millions who come after us.