Our system of checks and balances requires that political leaders hold two opposing ideas in their heads simultaneously.
If you’re a political leader, the first is that your political opponents are wrong about many things and should be defeated in elections. The second is that you still need them. You need them to check your excesses, compensate for your blind spots and correct your mistakes.
This system has been decaying for decades, but it’s really disintegrated over the past year. Donald Trump has never understood checks and balances. He’s never understood anything that stands in the way of his will. The administration’s policy of blanket noncooperation with Congress is clearly a betrayal of how our system of government is supposed to work.
But Trump is far from the only villain. If the House of Representatives wants to preserve its oversight power on the executive branch, then it has to be willing to oversee. It has to be willing to use its power in positive ways to improve governance.
If Congress uses its power simply to destroy the president, then any president is going to clam up and refuse to cooperate. If Congress picks fights to gin up the passions of the donor base, then the system of checks and balances is going to break down.
Republicans have crossed this line in the past, and Democrats crossed it last week, undermining the way the system of oversight is supposed to work, by declaring a constitutional crisis over the redaction levels of the Mueller report. Of all the contemptible things the Trump administration has done, this is probably the least contemptible.
Sure, William Barr distorted the report in his initial summary, but he also released a report that was extremely damning about his own president. In addition, Barr has made 99.9 percent of Volume II of the Mueller report, which is focused on obstruction, available to top Democrats, as noted in a letter from Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd.
The Democratic position is that the whole report and the underlying documents should be made available to all members of Congress – a guarantee that everything will leak. The core disagreement is this: The administration claims it needs to protect continuing investigations and grand jury information. The Democrats claim they should go to a judge and get him or her to lift those restraints.
I don’t know who’s right on the legalities. Walter Dellinger, a top Justice official in the Clinton administration, told The Washington Post that the administration’s executive privilege claim might be justified at this stage. “It could well be that in the millions of pages being sought, there are materials for which there is a genuine claim of executive privilege,” he said.
But the fact that the House Judiciary Committee chairman, Jerry Nadler, decided to go to the mat over this suggests the disagreement is a pretext for the media battle many Democrats and Trump want to have.
Democrats rushed into this. It took the Republicans about eight months between the time they issued a subpoena to Obama Attorney General Eric Holder for information on the Fast and Furious program and when they actually voted to hold him in contempt of Congress. The Democrats went from subpoena to contempt in three weeks.
It’s not as if the decision to hold Barr in contempt is going to have any positive effect. The whole thing now gets frozen and sent into the court system for months or years. Holder served for three more years as attorney general after Republicans held him in contempt, without any practical change in his status.
This constitutional crisis is just for show. Partly, the Democrats want the show because it feels good to bash the administration. “This has had a cathartic effect on the Democrats because we have finally been able to find a way to fight back at the obstructionism,” Rep. Jamie Raskin told my New York Times colleague Sheryl Gay Stolberg.
Partly they are trying to appease the wing of the party that is calling for impeachment right away. The party leaders generally opposed impeachment for sensible reasons. It would be impossible to win a conviction in the Senate without some Republican cooperation and overwhelming popular support – which doesn’t exist. It’s much better for the Democrats if they focus media attention on their presidential candidates. A Trump vs. Nadler media war is exactly what Trump wants.
The problem with any policy of appeasement is that it rarely appeases; it only emboldens. And that’s what’s happening. You can feel the atmosphere in the Democratic Party changing, getting more passionate, getting more caught up in the back-and-forth combat with Trump, getting more whipped up into impeachment furor.
My advice to Democrats: If Robert Mueller isn’t blocked from testifying, hear what he has to say and then see where we are. But advice is rarely heeded when war fever is rising and the logic of events starts spinning out of control, when the self-disciplining mechanisms of checks and balances have been washed away in the fury of war. That’s when the real trouble starts.
David Brooks is a columnist for The New York Times.